NEW YORK — Microsoft ended support for the persistently popular Windows XP on Tuesday, and the move could put everything from the operations of heavy industry to the identities of everyday people in danger.
An estimated 30 percent of computers being used by businesses and consumers around the world are still running the 12-year-old operating system.
“What once was considered low-hanging fruit by hackers now has a big neon bull’s-eye on it,” says Patrick Thomas, a security consultant at Neohapsis.
Microsoft has released a handful of Windows operating systems since 2001, but XP’s popularity and the durability of the computers it was installed on kept it around longer than expected. Analysts say that if a PC is more than 5 years old, chances are it’s running XP.
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While users can still run XP after Tuesday, Microsoft says it will no longer provide security updates, issue fixes to nonsecurity-related problems or offer online technical-content updates.
The company is discontinuing XP to focus on maintaining its newer operating systems, the core programs that run personal computers. Microsoft said it will provide anti-malware-related updates through July 14, 2015, but warned that the tweaks could be of limited help on an outdated operating system.
Most industry experts say they recognize that the time for Microsoft to end support for such a dated system has come, but the move poses both security and operational risks for the remaining users.
In addition to home computers, XP is used to run everything from water-treatment facilities and power plants to such small businesses as doctor’s offices.
Thomas says XP appealed to a wide variety of people and businesses that saw it as a reliable workhorse and many chose to stick with it instead of upgrading to Windows Vista or Windows 7 or 8.
Thomas notes that companies generally resist change because they don’t like risk. As a result, businesses most likely to still be using XP include banks and financial-services companies, along with health-care providers. He also pointed to schools from the university level down, saying that they often don’t have enough money to fund upgrades.
Mark McCreary, a Philadelphia-based attorney with the firm Fox Rothschild, says small businesses could be among the most affected by the end of support, because they don’t have the same kinds of firewalls and in-house IT departments that larger companies possess. And if they don’t upgrade and something bad happens, they could face lawsuits from customers.
But he says he doesn’t expect the widespread malware attacks and disasters that others are predicting — at least for a while.
“It’s not that you blow it off and wait another seven years, but it’s not like everything is going to explode on April 8 either,” he says.