Next year, Microsoft will finally pull the plug on Windows XP and Office 2003. The company will stop providing updates to both products after more than a decade in service. That’s the computing world’s version of living to your 110th birthday. So what took so long and what does it mean to folks that are still using Windows XP or Office 2003?
Popularity has been the big hold up. Windows XP is Microsoft’s most popular operating system to date. It finally began slipping from the number one rank worldwide when Windows 7 arrived, but it’s still in use on around 25% of computer systems. There are a few key holdouts: corporate computers and China.
Lots of businesses won’t upgrade computing systems unless they absolutely have to. It’s that old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Replacing Windows XP with something newer can cost a business more than just money. There’s also the potential for lost productivity (which, of course, ultimately translates to money) and end-user frustration (which translates to lost productivity).
At home, many users don’t give a second thought to what operating system they’re using. If it still connects to the Internet, plays solitaire, and downloads MP3s, it’s just fine. Why spend money on a Windows upgrade disk and risk messing up the installation — or spend several hundred dollars on a new computer when your old one isn’t getting much of a workout anyway?
It’s the same situation with Office 2003. If you purchased a copy of Office 2003 so that you could type up documents in Word or make the odd Spreadsheet in Excel, it’s never going to stop doing those things. It still works just fine, and there’s not enough incentive to plunk down another $200 on a version of Office 2013 or sign up for an Office 365 subscription.
But what now? Microsoft has announced that it’s ending support for both Windows XP and Office 2003. Does that mean they’re finally going to quit working?
In a word, no.
What’s actually happening is that Microsoft is going to stop providing software updates. The company has three newer versions of both Windows (Vista, 7, and 8) and Office (2007, 2010, and 2013) to look after now. Taking care of software that’s going to be more than 10 years old next year is not something Microsoft wants — or needs — to be doing.
Does this mean you have to upgrade? No. But it does mean that neither your copy of Office 2003 or Windows XP will be getting patches for newly-discovered security flaws. If criminal hackers figure out new ways to compromise the software after Microsoft turns off support, your data could be at risk. Having anti-malware software will help, but that alone isn’t enough to make your computer safe to use on the Internet. It’s a little like driving around in a car that’s 20-30 years old. If well maintained, it will still get you from A to B. But there’s no comparison when it comes to safety. Today’s cars are vastly better at protecting you in a crash. Car companies will issue safety recalls for newer cars if they discover problems. And the newest cars are still under warranty.
If you’re concerned about the security of your data, then you ultimately don’t have a choice: you must upgrade. You don’t have to upgrade to Windows 8 or Office 2013, obviously. You can switch to a Mac or install Ubuntu on your computer and use Google Docs — or even Microsoft’s free Office Web Apps. If you think your needs can be met by cloud-based services alone, you might even consider replacing your existing machine with a Chromebook. But you do need to move to something more modern that someone is actively maintaining.