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PGSCON Main Page-- XP or What? Your Security Programs

XP or what?

(Pat Struthers, March 5th 2014)

Last year, Microsoft confirmed what it had long threatened: Windows XP, still currently used by about 30% of PC users world-wide, would no longer be supported as of April, 2014. What does this mean, exactly?

My computer is long out of warranty. Does it matter whether I get support or not?

Yes and no. If you live in a cave, everything you depend on works, and don't care whether you ever join Facebook, you are probably good with what you have. Just don't expect any new hardware or software to work. If you've followed good security practices in the past (don't mix business computing with recreational use, don't open suspicious email, don't spazz out while surfing, etc.) then you already know the right things to do and you will probably be safe regardless of what version of Windows you use....as long as you are just a casual computer user.

An even higher percentage of business PCs are running XP, and the situation may be a lot different if you are a business user, too. If you've had to change out your credit or debit cards in the last year (I've done so three times), you might realize that point-of-sale software vendors, credit card processors and issuers, and banks have had a very bad year. Responsible POS vendors have in some cases specifically told their customers that they cannot legally support systems with XP machines as part of the mix. Many ATM machines, photo processing kiosks, and other 'standalone' business systems also use XP extensively, and may also run into support and security problems over the next year. If your business uses software that may not be supported in XP, you should seriously consider upgrades in the next few months.

Even if you are a home user, you may want your computer to be somewhat useful on the Internet. Again, the last few years of security news have not been good, and you may gather that Microsoft only reluctantly embraced the idea that their products left something to be desired in the security department. Until pretty recently, if a product of theirs was infected by a virus it was the user's problem, even if the infection resulted from flaws in their bundled applications (such as Internet Explorer) or in Windows itself. They gave up competing in the anti-virus market a few years after XP came out, and left such things as active threat scanning, ad blocking, and good firewall technology to companies such as Alwil Software (avast!), AVG, Symantec (Norton Anti-Virus), Kaspersky Labs, and McAfee.

The problem with this strategy has become very clear in the years since XP first shipped in 2001. No matter how incredibly sophisticated your latest security product might be, it has to assume that when you 'ask for' (clink on a link, open an email) something, you will be very irritated if you have to deal with a security panic every time. Every security tool has to draw a fine line between convenience to the user and effective protection. Moreover the target doesn't sit still; Windows and PCs and the Internet have all evolved beyond prediction over the past twenty years, and the pace is if anything accelerating. In addition to watching for and blocking known threats, most anti-virus/anti-spyware products also monitor for 'virus-like' behavior in everything else that moves through your computer, hoping to stop new threats even before they are known to the engineers of the product. As you might guess, this type of scanning can cause a lot of 'false positives', which can also be very irritating to users.

It's not as if Microsoft has been completely oblivious to problems with their software; by 2008 they had patched XP hundreds of times. These updates were rolled up into 'service packs' and incorporated into new versions of XP. But since Service Pack 3 was released in 2008, there have been well over one hundred additional updates to XP. Many of the problems these updates addressed were discovered in newer version of Windows such as Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 (all of which share some code with XP) and back-ported to XP. It seems likely that long after Microsoft has abandonded XP in April, new problems will continue to be found.

These updates don't just spackle over flaws in Internet Explorer and Outlook Express; many of them repair problems at a much deeper level, fixing code these programs share with each other, the Office suite, and the Windows operating system itself. Many, if not most, third-party programs also depend to some extent on the integrity of these repeatedly repaired systems, including anti-virus and security programs, alternative office suites, mail programs, and browsers. Undiscovered flaws probably still exist in XP that will never get fixed, and that can potentially subvert any program that runs on XP.

I want to stick with XP for a while, so what do I do in the meantime?

The best way to avoid trouble if you decide to stick with XP? Avoid using any Microsoft programs that you can (older versions of Office; Internet Explorer; Outlook Express). Third-party software companies and open source organizations have to compete with each other and have a LOT more incentive to continue to support excellent products that run on XP because they do not enjoy the monopoly that Microsoft does...and XP will STILL have a large percentage of the market (particularly among business users) for the foreseeable future.

Replacements for Internet Explorer:   As far as browsers go, Mozilla Firefox (currently at version 27+) is an excellent choice. Firefox has a large number of security add-ons that make a great program even safer to use. Firefox also depends very little on lower-level Windows resources that other programs such as Safari or Google Chrome have to use; Chrome, at least, may be improved in that regard in the future and is an excellent browser otherwise. Lastly, a lot of the innovations in newer (and presumably safer) versions of Internet Exploer have been driven by the new features that Firefox and Chrome users have enjoyed for years.

Replacements for Outlook Express:  Likewise, Mozilla Thunderbird is an excellent off-line mail program, and a good alternative to Microsoft's Live Mail (an updated version of Outlook Express). Office Outlook users can move to Seamonkey to get the extra contact-management and calendar integration they are used to.
If you don't use an off-line mail program, you are probably using a browser to get at your mail (Hotmail, Live, GMail, Yahoo! Mail, etc.) and, again, you should switch to Firefox or Chrome if you really want to be safe in XP.

Replacements for Microsoft Office (including Outlook):   You DON'T have to pay large amounts of money to Microsoft every few years, just to make sure you can still read Word and Excel files. OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice are free, full-featured office productivity suites that serve admirably on Windows systems, and will continue to do so. These free programs are periodically updated so that they will be able to read and edit the newer document formats that Microsoft seems to invent every few years to keep their Office division rolling in the $$$.
If you also use Outlook, SeaMonkey is also a good replacement, and it includes an embedded version of the latest Firefox browser. Again, the security of all Mozilla products can be enhanced with a wide variety of plugins and extensions.

Security Products:  But the most important part of the equation is anti-virus/firewall protection, and there are a number of good alternatives depending on how new and how fast your computer is. Full security suites such as Norton Internet Security or Avast! Internet Security may slow you computer down so much that it becomes useless, but....both of these also replace the Windows Firewall. The best solution is to use a good free anti-virus program such as Alwil's avast! Home Edition (http://www.avast.com).

I don't want XP, but I don't want to spend a bunch of money on a new computer either. Help!

Surprisingly, there is an alternative that won't require you to buy new hardware: use Linux. In addition to being free, Linux has matured amazingly in the years since XP has come on the scene. The vast majority of PC hardware that has been built in the last decade will run handily. Most computer users will find very little they cannot do in Linux that they are used to doing day-to-day work on a Windows PC. And the best part of it all: Linux will probably run FASTER on your old hardware than Windows XP ever did. Linux is also a good direction to move if you are already using Firefox, Thunderbird, and OpenOffice/LibreOffice; all of these were originally developed to run on Linux as well as Windows. Once you start using Linux, you will discover dozens or hundreds of other programs that do the same things as you 'miss' on Windows and Mac systems.

Linux inherits (as does Mac OS X) its much more aggressive security model from Unix, and Unix was designed from the bottom-up as a multi-user computing environment. Unix/Linux systems are much more efficient (ie. FAST), rugged and hardware independent because of this origin. Both Linux and Mac OS X are much less vulnarable BY DESIGN that any Windows version will ever pretend to be. The Internet was first built using Unix machines, and the idea of comprehensive security on the Internet is much more natural to the descendents of Unix.



Software Links -- Back to Top -- PGSCON Main Page


Your Security Software:

Instructions for using avast! Anti-virus Home Edition and MalwareBytes' Anti-Malware

Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware and avast! Anti-Virus Home Edition are both free of charge; avast! also has a professional version and an internet security suite for ~$19-$45/year.

Avast! anti-virus Home Edition version 9 (www.avast.com) requires online registration once a year. Install it and open up the "user interface" from the system tray, then go to the "Maintenance" tab on the left, then "Registration". Then hit the "register online" button (ignore offers to buy the Pro or Internet Security versions) and enter the required information. Other than this, avast! pretty much maintains itself; it will pop up about twice a day to tell you it has updated successfully.
One of the best new features in version 9 of Avast! is the "Browser Cleanup" tool. If you start the main program (Desktop icon or system tray icon), you will see "Browser Cleanup" on the main display. Run this once a month or so to clean out those annoying toolbars and add-ons that are slowing down Firefox, Chrome, or (ech) Internet Explorer.

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (www.malwarebytes.org) - open the icon and go to the "Update" tab; hit the button that says "Check for Updates". A dialog box will pop up and check for both program and database updates. If the program needs to be updated, it will automatically shutdown and restart. About once a month, after the updates have been run, go to the "Scanner" tab and check the "Perform full scan" box, then hit the Scan button. After 15-30 minutes it will finish. If there are any problems found, it will tell you to look at the results using a button on a lower right. On the next screen you will have a list of things found, with a button to fix the problems on the lower left. PLEASE call us (541-626-3096) if you have questions about the scanning results!
NOTE: This utility IS free. Ignore the various buttons to purchase the professional version, unless you wish to upgrade to it.

Lastly...

Windows XP will not be supported by Microsoft after April of 2014; this means that XP will no longer be eligible for security updates, and this particularly includes Internet Explorer 8 (or earlier versions), Outlook Express, and the Microsoft Security Essentials anti-virus programs.
This DOESN'T necessarily mean you can't use XP, just that you should stop using Microsoft products on XP. If you use Avast!, MalwareBytes, and alternative mail programs and browsers such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Thunderbird, and Seamonkey, you will be MUCH better off. You may also want to use a third-party firewall such as ZoneAlarm, or buy the full-auto version of Avast! Internet Security which includes an excellent firewall.

Better yet, let us upgrade your old hardware to Linux!


Links to the software mentioned above:
(and yes, it is the best!)

Mozilla Firefox -- web browser

Google Chrome -- web browser

Mozilla Thunderbird -- mail client

Seamonkey -- mail and contact management

avast! Anti-virus -- home and business anti-virus

MalwareBytes Anti-Malware -- the best free virus scanner

Debian Linux - just say NO to Microsoft and Apple

Apache's Open Office -- the best (free) office suite

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