Microsoft retired its 12-year-old Windows XP operating system yesterday, with more than 260,000 computers in New Zealand still running the program.
There are still lots of XP computers because its successor, Vista, was unpopular, so many XP owners held off upgrading. In addition, many consumers are buying smartphones and tablet computers instead of upgrading old PCs.
Microsoft is pushing remaining XP owners to upgrade to a newer operating system, such as Windows 7 or 8. It will still be possible to use existing Windows XP computers after Microsoft retires it, but that comes with risks.
Here's what to do if you own one of them:
What happened yesterday?
❏ Microsoft issued its final update to fix known security flaws with XP.
❏ XP machines will still work, and you can install past security updates. You won't get new ones to address any new security flaws.
❏ Your machine will face greater security risks. Because hackers know Microsoft will no longer issue updates, they have extra incentive to look for security flaws.
❏ Microsoft will still provide updates for its anti-malware software for XP until July 2015, but the company warns it will offer limited protection.
If XP will still run, why do I need to upgrade?
❏ A big reason is security. Hackers know Microsoft will no longer fix security flaws, so hackers have extra incentive to look for them. In addition, if a flaw is found for Windows 7 or 8, there's a good chance a similar issue exists for XP as well. So when the fixes come out for Windows 7 or 8, hackers can go back to XP to look for an opening.
❏ Hackers have become more sophisticated, and lately they have been breaking into computers for financial gain rather than just pride. So the risk is greater than when Microsoft retired past systems such as Windows 95 and 98.
❏ There are also performance issues. If you buy a new printer or scanner, it might not work on XP. Same goes for new software, particularly if it needs faster processors and more memory beyond what was standard in XP's heyday.
Can I upgrade my computer?
❏ Check here to see whether your computer is running Windows XP: amirunningxp.com
❏ If it is, run the tool here to see whether your computer is powerful enough to upgrade.
❏ If you can upgrade, you can buy a DVD version of the latest Windows 8 version for $199.
❏ Retail sales of Windows 7 have ended, though you might be able to find leftover copies for sale online.
❏ You'll need to back up your files and have disks for old programs handy, as an upgrade requires wiping out your hard drive. Microsoft has a step-by-step tutorial.
❏ Keep in mind that it's likely better to use that $199 toward a new computer. You'll be getting something more powerful.
❏ Be aware that either way, you may also need to buy new software, as older versions might not run on Windows 7 or 8. Microsoft, for instance, is also ending support for Office 2003 on Tuesday.
What if I keep using my XP computer, despite the risks?
❏ Be sure to run all the previously released updates, plus the last one out yesterday.
❏ If you don't need the internet connection, unplug it. That will minimise the risk. Be careful about attaching USB storage drives, as that might introduce malicious software.
❏ If you need the internet, refrain from using email, Facebook and other communications channels through which malicious software might travel.
❏ It's also a good idea to lock down your computer by using a profile that lacks administrative rights and to remove older software you no longer need.
❏ Remove older software applications you no longer use. The less you have running, the less vulnerability you'll have.
Why is Microsoft doing this?
❏ As technology improves, it makes less sense to support something designed a PC generation or two ago. The company's resources are better spent on making newer products better.
❏ Apple does this, too, with its OS X system for Mac computers, though it doesn't announce end dates for older versions as Microsoft does. Unlike Microsoft, Apple now offers upgrades for free.
❏ XP made its debut in 2001 and retired from retail stores as boxed software in 2008. PC makers were allowed to sell computers with Windows XP for another two years.