A last reprieve for the enduring Windows XP?

Woody Leonhard

By now, every Windows XP user and his third cousin should know that on April 8, the clock runs out on the venerable OS.

But recent developments might give XP users a bit of a reprieve. When and how Microsoft will blink are the open questions.

Microsoft’s original stance: The end is the end

The folks in Redmond continue to insist that XP is well and truly done on April 8. But there could be half a billion XP computers still out there humming away, depending on how you count them and what assumptions you’re willing to make. Getting an accurate count is exceptionally difficult, because many of them aren’t connected to the Internet via a browser. Consequently, they don’t appear in independent Internet stats. But whatever the precise number, a huge number of PCs are officially end of life in just over two months.

Contrary to what some XP users believe, “end of life” doesn’t mean that XP computers will stop working, that XP can no longer be installed, or that existing security patches will be pulled from Windows Update. It means that officially, on April 8, Microsoft will no longer support XP — there will be no more updates for the OS.

Regular Windows Secrets readers have seen numerous stories on living with XP for the long term. See, for example:

  • Preparing Windows XP for the long haul – Aug. 12, 2010, Top Story
  • Building your own XP Service Pack 4 – Dec. 1, 2011, Top Story
  • PC security after XP’s official end of life – Sept. 19, 2013, LangaList Plus
  • Securing XP PCs after Microsoft drops support – Dec. 19, 2013, Top Story

If you’ve been reading this newsletter, you know that XP’s end is coming. But you probably didn’t know that Microsoft’s moved the goalposts — repeatedly. What end of life means, precisely, has been redefined by Microsoft at least three times in the past couple of months. And there’s a strong possibility that the definition will change again before April — to the confusion of most XP users.

So what did end of life mean? Back in the good old days — say, three months ago — Microsoft’s description of the April deadline suggested nothing less than the complete end of any XP support: no tech-support help, no new enhancements, and no security updates. (That, as it turns out, isn’t quite correct. As I’ll discuss below, Microsoft will no longer give away updates — but businesses with corporate-licensing plans can pay for them after April 8.)

Then, in early January, Microsoft altered its official XP obituary page, adding that “Microsoft will also stop providing Microsoft Security Essentials for download on Windows XP.” That certainly sounds threatening!

Backpedaling a bit on a hardline stance

To date, I’ve not seen an official clarification of what “stop providing Microsoft Security Essentials” precisely means. For example, it could mean that you can’t download MSE using an XP-based browser. If so, it’s silly — you just download MSE on a different machine and install on XP. Or perhaps MSE’s installer might simply block XP. In that case, what happens if you reinstall XP? (Microsoft will require XP activation, even after EOL.) You can’t reinstall MSE, either? Even Microsoft wouldn’t be that callous — I hope.

To add to the confusion, in mid-January Microsoft’s Malware Protection Center announced in a TechNet blog that it would continue to provide updates to MSE for XP machines for another 15 months. The blog states, “To help organizations complete their migrations, Microsoft will continue to provide updates to our anti-malware signatures and engine for Windows XP users through July 14, 2015.”

That’s certainly a customer-friendly development — although I’m still scratching my head about blocking MSE downloads on XP. It’s possible that somebody at the Malware Protection Center ran a simulation of the fallout from some nasty virus compromising half a billion XP machines after April 8. That could cause something of a hiccup on the Internet!

That MPC statement is noteworthy because Microsoft will not only update MSE signatures but the MSE engine, too. Bravo.

In a more recent development, Computerworld broke the news in a Jan. 26 story that Microsoft will update the Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT) for Windows XP through July 14, 2015. MSRT isn’t a first-line-of-defense AV tool, but it’s effective at removing existing infections. It’s also delivered via Microsoft Update, so most XP machines will get it.

Some safe assumptions, some wild speculations

If Microsoft’s backpedaling were limited to just those two AV products, I’d not be very impressed. Many third-party vendors offer better anti-malware protection and have publicly stated that they’ll continue support for XP. But I am impressed by Microsoft’s willingness to soften its XP end-of-life stance. The company has nothing to gain and everything to lose if it completely alienates its millions of XP users.

Many believe XP deserves to die because it’s been around for 12 years. I take issue with that. XP was first released in October 2001, so technically it’s 12 years old. But it was rewritten for Service Pack 2, which appeared in August 2004. And Microsoft sold XP through its System Builders program until Jan. 31, 2009. That’s just five years ago.

During the unfortunate Vista era, many PC buyers went out of their way to get XP. So as far as I’m concerned, XP hit the bit bucket only when Windows 7 shipped in July 2009. That makes XP, by my admittedly jaundiced reckoning, a sprightly four and a half years old!

That said, there’s no doubt that those running XP are living on borrowed time. Windows 7 and 8x offer enhanced security and better compatibility with modern software and peripherals. Most XP users should be planning to replace XP.

But it’s also a bit disingenuous to effectively force Windows users to buy Win7 or Win8 — then force them to line Microsoft’s coffers once again a few years later when those operating systems are made obsolete.

Here’s a parting tip: If you work for a company that has a Microsoft volume license and a suitable Windows retirement contract, you can buy “Custom Support” for XP, as reported in a Computerworld story. That service costs U.S. $200 per PC per year and includes updates to XP itself. Rather than cut off individual XP users, I think Microsoft should offer a personal “Custom Support” option for, say, $20 or $30 a year. That would do a lot of good for the millions of XP users — and earn Microsoft some much-needed customer loyalty.

Hey! I can always hope.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-02-06:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.