XPocalypse Now

IN less than five months, Microsoft will end support services for its most widely used operating system, Windows XP. This means the estimated 2.9 million XP users in the Philippines—roughly a quarter of all computers in the country—will no longer receive security updates, fixes or online technical support by April 8, 2014.

In Asia (excluding China), an even higher 28 percent of all PCs still run on Windows XP. Vietnam, at 44 percent, is the highest; followed by Indonesia, 35.99 percent; Taiwan, 31.68 percent; Thailand, 28.86 percent; and Korea, 21.93 percent.

“The security and privacy implications of this event could have significant impacts on your business,” Microsoft Philippines warned last April, as it urged the XP holdouts to upgrade to Windows 7 or its latest OS, Windows 8.

To alert users—and scare up some new business for itself—Microsoft said Windows XP with SP3 was three times more vulnerable than Windows 7 SP1 and up to 56 times more vulnerable than Windows 8 RTM.

Since Windows XP was introduced in 2001, security threats have escalated in a number of ways, the company added.

Malicious software now numbers in the millions, encompassing threats such as viruses, worms, trojans, exploits, backdoors, password stealers, spyware and other variations of unwanted software. Rogue security software and hacktivism are other threats.

Tim Rains, director of trustworthy computing at Microsoft, warned XP SP3 users could experience a 66-percent rise in malware infections after support ends, saying this is what happened to users when the company phased out support for XP SP2.

On top of these dangers, more than 60 percent of independent software vendors and modern browsers no longer support XP, Microsoft said.

While Microsoft clearly wants the millions of XP users to stay within the Windows family, this isn’t the only option. Today, free and open-source software offers both business and home users a secure, affordable and reliable alternative to a Windows-based computing platform.

Many people have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of running a business on free software, but many of the giant corporations such as Google, IBM and Amazon have built their businesses on open source technologies.

Last month, I wrote about the massive 72,000-PC migration from Windows XP to Ubuntu Linux being undertaken by the Gendarmerie Nationale, the French police force.

This week, I stumbled upon of a smaller migration that’s literally out of this world. Back in May, the International Space Station decided to migrate dozens of its laptops from Windows XP to Debian, a Linux distribution on which Ubuntu was based.

“We needed an operating system that was stable and reliable—one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust or adapt, we could,” Keith Chuvala, the contract manager involved in the switch, told the science and technology news service

Last week, in a speech to the Canberra Press Club in Australia, security expert Eugene Kaspersky said before the switch to Linux, Russian cosmonauts managed to carry infected USB sticks aboard the station, spreading computer viruses to the connected computers.

Kaspersky said viruses took hold of the space-based computers, including dozens of Windows XP laptops.

In August 2008, Nasa confirmed that laptops carried to the ISS were infected with a virus. NASA said it was not the first time computer viruses had traveled into space, the BBC reported.

These accounts serve to highlight one of the major advantages of switching to an open-source operating system such as Linux—there are far fewer malware attacks than there are in Windows.

Of course, as in any migration, there will be a period of adjustment and some retraining needed.

But Joseph Granneman, writing in Network Computing, observes: “Microsoft’s controversial decision to overhaul the familiar interface for Windows 8.1 now requires just as much training as switching to Linux. Ubuntu’s Unity desktop has evolved into a user friendly interface that is arguably more easily understood by end users than Windows 8.1.”

Linux distributions are also generally less resource-demanding as the new Windows OS, so companies moving from XP will likely be able to keep using some of their older PCs instead of having to replace all of them with newer units.

Finally, because Linux and open-source applications are free, companies will no longer have to worry about licensing fees or the risks involved in software piracy.

Microsoft is right when it says it’s time for Windows XP users to update their systems, but for many, the best upgrade path might not necessarily lead to Windows 8. Chin Wong

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