Skip to main content

Windows XP has finally been laid to rest – but it will haunt us well into the future

Fair citizens of the interwebs, I bring sad tidings: Windows XP is officially dead. As of this morning, 8 April, Microsoft has officially end-of-lifed (EOL) Windows XP. If you're still running Windows XP, no further patches or security updates are coming your way, and you should upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8 immediately.

Of course, in reality, some 30 per cent of the world's 1.5 billion PCs still run Windows XP – and that's only counting Internet-connected PCs, too. If you factor in computers that are hiding behind governmental and institutional firewalls, and non-PCs (such as ATMs and other embedded systems), there could be billions of computers still running Windows XP today.

Introduced way back in 2001, Windows XP (short for eXPerience) was an important release that made good on the abomination that was Windows Me. Windows Me was originally meant to ship with Microsoft's NT kernel, but instead was rushed out the door with the older, less stable, BSOD-loving monolithic Windows 9x kernel. A year later, Windows XP was released with an updated version of Windows 2000′s NT kernel, and a few other neat, modern features (Windows Firewall, IE6 – yes, it was modern once – Remote Desktop, and so forth).

As we all know, Windows XP went on to become the world's most popular operating system by some margin. Microsoft has never released any exact figures, but my educated guess is that Microsoft has sold over 1 billion Windows XP licenses over the last 13 years. The true number of computers that have had XP installed on them, due to prolific piracy in China and elsewhere, is probably even higher – 2 billion or more, perhaps.

Now, after a few stays of execution, and after mainstream support ended in 2009, Microsoft is finally terminating extended support as well. RIP Windows XP. It's time to say a prayer and pull the plug... or is it? Weirdly, numerous governments and institutions – including the UK and Netherlands – have arranged for "Custom Support" plans, where Microsoft will continue to provide Windows XP updates at great expense (£5.6 million for one year, in the case of the UK government). There are many large institutions that are still using Windows XP – simply pulling the plug on security updates is irresponsible and potentially dangerous, if a zero-day vulnerability goes unfixed.

Millions of ATMs worldwide still run Windows XP, and will do for years to come.

And therein lies the crux of the matter: When there are still hundreds of millions of PCs and embedded systems running Windows XP, it's very, very hard to stop supporting them. It is infinitely better for the world (and the worldwide web) if we stop using Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6, but it's just not that simple. This is a grim reminder of how monopolies can hamstring an entire industry, and in cases as significant as XP, society as a whole. Windows XP, combined with Office 2003 and IE6, was really the only viable option for almost a decade. It isn't a surprise that Windows XP was popular, but it certainly wasn't helped by some of Microsoft's more shady monopolistic practices, and a lack of competition (which Microsoft did a pretty good job of stamping out).

Fortunately, we live in a different world today. Windows 7 is certainly popular, but thanks to the distribution of power caused by the emergence of smartphones, tablets, and cloud computing, it will never become the monolithic juggernaut that Windows XP once was. There is the risk that, much like Windows Vista forced people to stick with XP, Windows 7 will remain popular well past its shelf life – but with PC sales declining, and computing shifting towards mobile platforms, I don't think we need to worry too much.

If you run a business which is still using XP, check out our article on 4 ways small businesses can protect themselves against the end of Windows XP, and our piece on how to easily migrate your business operations from Windows XP.

You might also want to read: End of an Era: Will your IT estate survive post Windows XP?