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Even in its final days, Windows XP still looms large

4:13 AM, Mar 14, 2014   |    comments
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(USATODAY.com) - The technology industry has no respect for tradition. Disruption is the name of the game, and it sometimes takes only a few short years for a market leader to become an also-ran. To paraphrase Robert Frost, nothing tech can stay.

Then there's Windows XP. Introduced to the buying public on Oct. 25, 2001, this relic is still going strong, found under the hood of nearly one-third of all computers today. And that's not just personal computers - Windows XP variants power specialized medical equipment, point-of-sale systems, and even ATMs.

Now, after 12 years of success, Microsoft is finally closing the door on the XP era.

After April 8 Windows XP users "will no longer receive new security updates, non-security hotfixes, free or paid assisted support options, or online technical content updates from Microsoft," according to the company. Translation: If a major new fault is discovered in Windows XP after that date, you can't rely on Microsoft to patch it.

Mary Jo Foley, editor of ZDNet's All About Microsoft blog, says that the leap from XP to a more recent version of Windows can be a daunting proposition for big businesses and individuals alike.

"There are a bunch of different reasons they haven't moved," Foley says. "Some can't, due to IT policies at their companies. In other cases, incompatibilities with peripherals, unique devices and software all factor in." These infrastructural changes can get complicated quickly, and for some companies, prohibitively costly to tackle.

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Microsoft first made plans for XP's obsolescence soon after launch, plotting out a four-year run while it finished what would become Windows Vista. After Vista finally launched in early 2007, an April 2014 end date for XP was set in stone. But despite a death clock that's about to hit zero, XP is still holding strong with 29% consumer market share across all desktop operating systems.

But while XP is likely to live on in plenty of systems, security concerns will mount as time goes b. Unpatched security flaws will make the OS particularly vulnerable in specialized use cases like ATMs and point-of-sale systems. "(We believe) that as many as 95% of ATMs have been running on Windows XP," says Jeff Dudash of NCR, the nation's largest ATM manufacturer.

Still, it's not a desperate situation. NCR clarifies that "financial institutions that do not migrate to Windows 7 immediately will have plans in place to maintain the integrity and security of their systems." Additionally, many of these devices run a variant of Windows XP called Embedded, which will be supported until 2016. Another close relative called Windows Embedded 2003 will receive critical patches until 2019.

Windows XP's extremely long shelf life came courtesy of a perfect storm of events. Windows Vista's delays, poor reception, and disappointing adoption rate were key factors, but XP's broad compatibility and the advent of the cheap netbook computer also helped it last longer than Microsoft anticipated.

"XP had a lot of staying power because it was a good OS. When Microsoft updated XP with Service Pack 2, it really should have called that version by a different name," says Foley. "It was basically a new OS with all the fixes they made to it."

It's nothing short of incredible that Windows XP has stuck around for this long. This is an operating system that was released when Destiny's Child and Crazy Town were still on the Billboard charts. It hit store shelves two days after Apple's very first iPod was announced, and long before the smartphone revolution.

But once the aging OS stops getting critical security patches, using an XP-based computer online will be as dangerous as taking a Roman chariot onto a busy L.A. freeway.

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To avoid that kind of peril, companies without the means to upgrade will instead turn to third-party security solutions. But even antivirus software won't be able to keep XP systems completely safe.

Piero DaPaoli, senior director of marketing at Symantec, told us, "While Symantec will continue to support XP users for the foreseeable future ... it's important for people to understand that there is no 'silver bullet' security software that can fully protect an OS that does not receive vulnerability updates."

Computer security is increasingly important to private individuals as well, due to rampant identity theft, fraud, and growing privacy concerns. For these reasons, XP users should at the very least look into upgrading to Windows 7 or 8.1. Microsoft's own website, AmIRunningXP.com, provides free information and software to ease the migration process.

But if you have a good reason to stick with XP, or simply love the OS, don't fret: It's not going to suddenly stop working on April 8. Going forward, you'll simply need to take reasonable precautions. Be smart about which files you download, keep your firewalls up, and avoid using accounts with administrator permissions. But remember, it's dangerous to go alone.

For more product reviews and news, visit Reviewed.com, a division of USA TODAY, and follow @ReviewedDotCom on Twitter.

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