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XPocalypse Now? End of Windows XP era arrives with warnings of doom

SAN FRANCISCO--Thirteen years after introducing Windows XP to the world, Microsoft is pulling the plug on the popular PC operating system Tuesday raising fears of a so-called “XPocalypse” of bugs, viruses and malware among the millions who still rely on the aging software.

That's because Microsoft will no longer issue security updates to the trusty old operating system, meaning that the millions of computers that still run XP will be more vulnerable than ever to the vagaries of internet hackers and their online scourges.

Some experts have compared the scare to the one that panicked computer users in 1999 when experts warned that a Y2K bug would play havoc with the world's digital infrastructure.

While that particular Armageddon fizzled out with barely any impact, the same may not be true for the XPocalypse.

With a home screen featuring a blue sky dotted with high clouds above rolling green hills, XP was meant to reassure users of a trouble-free computing environment. Now the feeling is one of dread.

Microsoft warned that users who fail to upgrade would face a “zero day vulnerability forever,” meaning that they would no longer have any defenses against hackers.

Microsoft ended most sales of the OS in 2008, though it did make it available for some low cost laptops through 2011. But like a zombie from a B-movie, the operating system refused to die as users poured scorn on its successors such as Windows Vista and Windows 7, deciding instead to stick with the devil they knew.

According to software tracking firm Netmarketshare.com, Windows XP is still going strong, and accounted for almost 28 percent of all PC operating systems as of January.

The reliance on Windows XP is especially heavy among the world's businesses, 40 percent of which still rely on the system and have been reluctant to update to newer systems. One of the biggest vulnerabilities is seen in the world's ATM machines, 95 percent of which were still running XP as late as January, according to ATM supplier NCR.

Making matters worse is the fact that Microsoft will continue to issue patches for vulnerabilities in newer operating systems. Hackers will then be able to reverse engineer that software to find the corresponding holes in Windows XP, said Tim Rains, Microsoft's Director of Trustworthy Computing.

“The very first month that Microsoft releases security updates for supported versions of Windows, attackers will reverse engineer those updates, find the vulnerabilities and test Windows XP to see if it shares those vulnerabilities,” he wrote in a blog posting. “If it does, attackers will attempt to develop exploit code that can take advantage of those vulnerabilities on Windows XP.”

Some large companies and governments have signed special contracts with Microsoft to continue support for XP. The UK government reportedly paid 5.5 million pounds for an additional year of support. Others are turning to third-party vendors and open source computer coders to patch their vulnerable old systems.

But Preston Gralla, who writes the Seeing Through Windows blog on Computerworld.com, dismisses these fears as being little more than tech paranoia, and argues that sticking with XP could be a smart move.

Many old time XP users are actually tech-savvy nerds who use a variety of firewalls, virus checkers and other security measures to stay clean, he points out. Third party anti-malware firms will continue to update their products.

“XP users are here to stay,” he argued Monday. “Some have held on to the operating system for as long as 12 years, and there's still no reason for them to switch. And there's nothing wrong with that at all.”

But Tom Murphy, Microsoft's director of communications, disagrees. “It's time to move on,” he said. “XP was designed for a different era.”

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This July 22, 2009 file photo shows a Windows XP logo on a Hewlett Packard Laptop at a Best Buy in Mountain View, California. On Tuesday, April 8, Microsoft will end support for its still-popular Windows XP. With an estimated 30 percent of businesses and consumers still using the 12-year-old operating system.

(AP)

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