2017 has been a pretty tumultous year for Windows XP. Catapulted into the headlines following May's global ransomware attack, it also turns 16 years old on 22 October. But, what are the security risks of using this old operating system?
We all have our favourite version of Windows. If you’ve been using PCs for a while, you might have fond memories of the bullet-proof Windows 2000, while others may think Windows 98 was Microsoft’s moment of glory. Someone, somewhere, probably even thinks Windows 8 is the bee’s knees …
For most people, Windows XP was the PC high-point. And for many, it still is - which is why they’re still using it. In fact, Windows XP is still running on more than 6% of machines - way ahead of its successor Windows Vista on 0.46%.
Windows XP, however, is also 16 years old this October, which means it’s older than some Windows programmers. Microsoft extended the life of Windows XP long past its original plans due to popular demand, but the last major update was released way back in 2008 and the plug was finally pulled early in 2014.
Microsoft has now long since moved on from Windows XP and, no matter what new problems people find in the operating system, no more updates of any kind will be forthcoming. And this creates a bit of a problem.
Why stick with Windows XP?
Many organisations still use Windows XP because they depend on custom software that isn’t compatible with later versions of the operating system, or because upgrading would be too complex and costly.
It’s a similar story for many home users. Some PCs are just too old to run anything else, not everyone can afford (or justify) a replacement, and some people just don’t like anything that came after Windows XP.
And before someone asks “What about Linux?”, bear in mind that someone who isn’t comfortable with a more recent version of Windows is unlikely to want to struggle with this complex and often confusing operating system.
But now that Microsoft has ended support for Windows XP, any outstanding bugs and security holes are never going to be fixed. So if you’re still using it, you’re living on borrowed time.
New bugs can’t be banished
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first major new bug in Windows XP was discovered just after Microsoft ended its support. The problem lies in Internet Explorer itself rather than the operating system, but with Microsoft no longer issuing updates for that either, it makes little difference.
Of course it is possible to use a more up-to-date web browser from someone else to fix this problem - you can find out about the safest possible browsers to use on XP and Vista by clicking here.
Microsoft recently released an emergency patch for Windows XP following the global ransomware attack which hit hundreds of countries in May - although this was extremely exceptional due to the circumstances, so don't expect to be rescued every time.
Microsoft suggests a number of solutions on its website, but ultimately the guidance is to use the most recent version of Windows and ensure you have reliable protection software such as BT Virus Protect.
How to make XP safer
So if you can’t - or won’t - stop using Windows XP, what can you do to keep your computer safe when the web is full of all kinds of criminals trying to hack into it?
We’ve covered this subject in some depth before, but in short, you need to make sure all existing updates for Windows XP have been applied (they’re all still available) and that your anti-malware software is up to date.
You should also stop using Internet Explorer as a matter of urgency and switch to a better, more secure, web browser as previously suggested.
Other than that, there’s little else you can do beyond keeping your fingers crossed and hoping that no new major security problems are found in Windows XP. Because if they are, there’s nothing anyone can do about them.
Updated by Jamie Harris on 16/05/2017