Windows XP and the Disposable Nature of Tech

13Mar14

Much is being made of Microsoft’s decision to finally end support for the Windows XP operating system. As of April 8, there will be no more security patches or updates to keep XP, introduced in 2001, protected from the nefarious actions of hackers, malware, and the like. Folks deciding to move forward with the venerable operating system will be on their own.

Some folks are angry about this. Mostly, these are tech journalists and bloggers who feel that Microsoft has some sort of ethical obligation to continue support for any product that still has significant numbers of users. Windows XP certainly has users—estimates are somewhere around 30% of all existing PCs. That’s almost a half billion PCs that will become vulnerable to [insert favorite threat here] going forward. For some of these writers, you’d think the end of the world was at hand.

To that I say: Get over it. Get a new computer. It’s time.

It’s natural for many people to look at a computer as a significant “durable goods” type of purchase, something that ought to work year after year with little fuss. But a computer isn’t like a washer or dryer, nor is it like a car, a kitchen stove or even a television set.

Tech is different.

Refrigerators are complex things. So are automobiles, flat-screen TVs, and dishwashers. But the complexity of these types of devices pales in comparison to technology items, especially ones that are set up to communicate with one another.

The short lifespan of tech items, which appears at times to be a program of planned obsolescence, is actually due not to the technology itself, but what I would characterize as human factors. These can be broken down into a couple of broad categories.

1. People Want More

Users might like their tech possessions, but they always want more. The computer monitor is nice, but it would be better if it was larger. Your mobile phone works fine for making calls, but you want it to run apps. Wouldn’t it be great if your digital camera had more megapixels? Your computer works fine for email and word processing, but maybe you want to start editing video…

The profit-driven tech manufacturers make their money responding to these desires, producing ever-more capable and complex things at a rapid rate. As our expectations increase, we find that our “old” tech devices, which may not be all that old in real life, simply don’t live up to the new expectations. They become obsolete, as Windows XP is today.

2. People Can Be Jerks

In addition to people always wanting more out of tech, there is another human factor: there are people out there who are opportunistic, like to make mischief, or are looking to do evil.

As computers evolved from standalone task-oriented devices to universal communication portals, people started putting valuable information on them, things such as credit card numbers and bank account details. This relates back the concept of people wanting their computers to do more, but it also creates a target for that second group.

Computer code is written by humans, and humans always make mistakes. Huge numbers of people create the software that makes a computer work, and another huge group is trying to figure out which mistakes made by the first group can be exploited for whatever reason. There is no gang of reprobates out there trying to figure out ways to make your riding lawnmower fail, but there are thousands looking for ways into your computer. They might simply be digital pranksters wanting to make your computer act in a strange way. Maybe they want to send you advertising spam. Or they might be trying to steal something valuable or co opt your computer for their purposes.

As these software vulnerabilities are discovered, companies like Microsoft have to continually create updates and service patches for their systems. This is lots of (uncompensated) work, and at some point, they find that they’re spending huge amounts of money inventing the next big thing (people want more, remember?) while simultaneously patching and updating multiple obsolete operating systems. At some point, it’s impossible; the old systems have to be abandoned so things can move forward.

Lest anyone think that Microsoft is the evil player here, it should be noted that Apple has announced that support for OSX “Snow Leopard” is being discontinued. Snow Leopard came out in 2009, eight years after Windows XP. Making matters worse, Apple doesn’t make “end of life” announcements about its products in as public a manner as Microsoft, which announced the upcoming discontinuation of XP support six years ago. In my opinion, people have had ample time to make suitable plans.

What should a Windows XP user do? My guess is that many will do nothing. I think most folks running XP don’t even know about the end of Microsoft’s support; many never update their computers or regularly read tech blogs or online computer magazines. They’ll be taking their chances, but I don’t know if they’re actually going to experience the disaster scenarios predicted by the pundits.

The best course would be to move on. Get a new PC, even if it means learning the new user interface for Windows 8. Remember that your old hardware is nearing its physical end-of-life anyway. If you want to keep using that PC from 2006 (the one with 1 gigabyte of RAM), Windows isn’t the answer, as the newest versions require newer hardware and more horsepower. The best way to keep an old PC working is to install Linux on it—this can add years of usability to old hardware.

After you finally do upgrade, don’t wait so long next time. Keep abreast of the tech news and remember that your computer is never going to last as long as your other high-priced stuff. Keep up with your antivirus updates, download and install the security patches for your operating system, and never forget that tech is different.

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