Is your company one of the ones that says, “You can take my Windows XP when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers”? Is it a case of hiding and hoping the April 8 date when Microsoft will cease providing support for the software goes away? Or are you just not able to face the prospect of upgrading?

Whichever it is, you have a lot of company. Net Applications, which keeps track of this sort of thing, says that as of December, 29 percent of PCs still ran Windows XP, which makes XP the second most popular PC operating system out there (48 percent of PCs run Windows 7). This is particularly the case in China, where as of last August, more than 70 percent of PCs still ran Windows XP. Estimates are that by April, as many as 28 million PCs (9 to 11 percent of them) will still be running XP.

Not bad for a 12-year-old operating system.

pie chart of os market share

Through three succeeding operating systems now — Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 — Microsoft has been fruitlessly encouraging people to upgrade. “Over a three-year timespan, organizations that make the move to a modern OS will see a 137 percent return on investment,” writes the company. “When taking into account the time needed to manage XP systems relating to items such as downtime, malware, and other maintenance, Windows 7 increases productivity by up to 7.8 additional hours per year per worker. Annual costs on maintenance for systems running Windows 7 compared to XP drop by a massive $700/year.”

The company also tried an extension, in 2007. It’s had countdowns of 1000 days, 500 days, and now even has a desktop widget to count down the final days.

Most recently, the impetus has been security. Microsoft said last April,  again last August, and then again in October, that the chance that malware could infect users’ Windows XP system could go up by two-thirds after the April deadline. Where does that figure come from? It’s a comparison between the number of malware attacks on Windows XP SP2, after it was no longer being upgraded, and Windows XP SP3, which was. Microsoft expects a similar pattern to hold true for Windows XP SP3.

So after several rounds of, “No, we really mean it this time,” the consensus is that Microsoft really truly does mean it this time (even if it is, as some cynics say, a ploy to get people to buy Windows 8).

This means you have 60 days for an upgrade process that Microsoft estimates can take 18 to 32 months in an enterprise.

So what keeps people from upgrading? Well, first of all, there’s the standard inertia. This is particularly true in the case of Windows XP; it’s not like it’s going to collapse and die on April 9. It’s likely that the economy has been a factor as well. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Even when it’s a little broke, in a typical company, so many things are more broke that those fires tend to get put out first. People may not even know that the old PC in the corner that got repurposed as a server a few years ago is, under the covers, still running Windows XP.

A bigger problem is that upgrading is hard. Upgrading is hard anyway, but upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7 or 8 (we just won’t talk about Vista, okay?) is even harder. First, the migration from Windows XP requires a clean install, meaning that all of the data and files on the XP computer have to be backed up and then reinstalled on the new operating system. Second, a lot of the PCs happily running XP — along with all their ancillary apps and peripherals – just aren’t capable of running Windows 7 or Windows 8, meaning that those PCs, apps, and peripherals all have to get upgraded or replaced as well.

In fact, it’s the biggest companies that are least likely to have migrated, writes Gregg Keizer at Computerworld (who really has done a yeoman’s job covering all the Windows XP lifecycle news over the past couple of years). As of last April, experts he quoted said 64 percent of large companies hadn’t completed their migration to Windows 7, while 52 percent of mid-sized companies hadn’t completed migration.

So if you still have Windows XP PCs kicking around, what should you do?

  • Do an inventory of the Windows XP systems you have, including what hardware they have and what software they run, and compare that with the requirements to run Windows 8.1. You can at least then get a scope of the problem — how many systems could be upgraded to a newer version of Windows, how many would need to be replaced, and what applications and peripherals would need to be updated. (Upgrading is more urgent if you’re in a regulated industry.)
  • Make sure that the Windows XP systems you have are up-to-date, to ensure that you have the bug fixes that have already been released.
  • Back the XP systems up — and, if possible, delete personally identifiable data such as Social Security numbers and bank accounts, writes Emily Siner at NPR.
  • In the case of security, you’re not completely hosed. First, Microsoft’s Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT) is expected to continue to be updated and deployed via Windows Update through July 14, 2015, according to Keizer. This will at least help if there’s the expected massive load of Windows XP malware. Second, the majority of antivirus vendors will continue to support XP even past the April deadline. So if you continue using XP systems past the deadline, make sure they’re protected with antivirus software and MSRT.
  • However, this is no panacea — so, as much as possible, keep the XP systems off the Internet, where they might pick up malware, writes Andreas Marx for AV-Test, the Independent IT-Security Institute.
  • Because XP is also having aging issues with Internet Explorer (newer versions of IE, such as IE9 and IE10, won’t run on Windows XP,  and older versions aren’t being upgraded), when you use a browser, use Chrome or Firefox, and do not use XP’s Outlook Express, Marx writes. Siner also recommends limiting email use in general. “And for the love of all that is holy, don't open suspicious attachments,” she writes.
  • If you’re a big company, and it’s worth it to you, you can still get Windows XP security upgrades, through a Microsoft program called Custom Support. But it’s expensive — as much as $200 per PC — and Microsoft reportedly increased the price a year ago.
  • If you are ready to bite the bullet and update, Microsoft has a list of steps to follow.

Oh, and think you’re safe because you’re on Windows 7? It ends its mainstream support in less than a year, and its extended support ends in 2020. Don’t wait ‘til the last minute.

Chart courtesy of Net Applications. Countdown timer courtesy of camwood.com.

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