As most of you know by now, Microsoft has announced (http://windows.microsoft.com/en-CA/windows/end-support-help) that technical assistance for Windows XP will end on the 8th April 2014, and the automatic updates that patch known security issues will no longer be available.
Furthermore, Microsoft will no longer be providing Microsoft Security Essentials for download. They will, however, provide antimalware signature updates for a limited time to those that have it installed.
How does this affect the average user still running Windows XP?
The computer will continue to function the way it always has. The biggest potential risk that the average user will face is that if a vulnerability is uncovered, Windows XP will not be able to cope with it, thereby leaving their PC vulnerable to harmful viruses, spyware, and other malicious software which can steal personal information.
What steps can be taken to secure a PC running Windows XP?
First and foremost, one should consider purchasing and/or upgrading their Internet Security software (as an alternative to Microsoft Security Essentials). This is a suite of software that defends the PC against intrusion and unauthorised use of resources, and is typically bundled in the form of Anti-Virus, Anti-Spy and Firewall software, which is available for purchase online through companies like Norton, McAfee, AVAST and AVG.
Be careful downloading the free or trial versions of these products, as they may only protect the PC against viruses (especially after the trial period of the software has expired). Ensure that this software is kept up to date, and that the vendors support Windows XP. In the case where they stop supporting Windows XP, one would need to consider an alternative solution.
Secondly, ensure that the PC is behind a firewall, whether it be one that is provided by software (e.g. the Internet Security suite of software mentioned above), or a router. The purpose of a firewall is to control incoming and outgoing network traffic by analysing the data packets, and determining whether or not they should be allowed through based on a predetermined set of rules. Essentially, it blocks unsolicited communications by other computers on the network.
The same could be said for plugins such as Adobe’s Flash Player, earlier versions of which have uncovered a vulnerability which could potentially allow an attacker to take control of an affected system. This is why it is always important to keep up to date with the latest releases. Ultimately, the only assurance against threats like this is to visit websites that are trusted and reputed.
One should also continue to use best practices when it comes to downloading software and reading email. Avoid downloading third party software containing embedded toolbars, as these typically contain malware. Also, do not open email attachments from unknown sources, nor provide any personal details when requested by unsolicited emails claiming to be from a financial institution.
How easy is it to upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1?
Unfortunately, one cannot simply upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. Aside from the fact that some of the older computers do not have the capacity to cope with an upgrade, there are software limitations preventing a direct upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 (or Windows 8.1 for that matter). In this case a fresh install is required, meaning that all software and data on the hard drive, unless backed up, will be lost.
Unlike data, software cannot be copied back to the hard drive after a fresh install and expected to work. Therefore, one would have to rely on the installation disks that were either purchased or came bundled with the PC (presuming, of course, that they are compatible with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1). Fortunately, most Microsoft products are still supported under Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 (of course, depending on the Microsoft Support Lifecycle Policy for those products).
Assuming that a fresh install of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 is successful, hardware limitations may further slow down the performance of the PC, especially after installing resource hungry applications like Anti-Virus and/or Anti-Spy software. Therefore, one would be forced to either increase the amount of RAM, hard disk space, or both.
Fortunately, the price of computers continues to drop, especially since tablets seem to be taking over the market place. If one is willing to settle for a new desktop computer, remember that there are a number of bargains out there with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 preinstalled.
While Microsoft have announced that it will stop supporting Windows XP does not mean that it will cease to function. On the contrary, it will continue to serve many as it has done for so many years. Hopefully, by using the above discussion as a guideline, one can secure their PC and continue to enjoy running the applications in an environment that they have grown to trust.