Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

After Windows XP

WindowsXPDesktopMicrosoft Windows XP will reach the end of its support life on 8 April 2014. It’s under two weeks to go. No, Windows XP will not stop working after that day, nor will the world grind to a halt. But many people have voiced valid concerns about continuing to use Windows XP. What should they do? What options do they have?

First, let’s see what happens after 8 April 2014. Once Windows XP support is ended, Microsoft will no longer provide automatic updates, security patches, or support information, unless you have a paid “custom” support plan. Windows XP will still run, but for most users, you can no longer depend on Microsoft for any sort of updates or support.

An update for Windows XP on 8 March 2014 will cause Windows XP to display a pop-up notification about the end of support on the 8th of every month. You can disable this notification.

You can choose to ignore all these end of support warnings, and just continue using Windows XP. The important question is, should you continue using Windows XP?

Given the threat scenarios faced by computer users these day, I think it is untenable to use any operating system or software that is no longer maintained or receiving security updates. Some anti-virus software vendors may continue to support Windows XP for a little while more, but it’s just not good enough if the underlying operating system is broken.

I can appreciate that some enterprise users have more complicated considerations, and they may well have to continue using Windows XP. Indeed, some enterprises may opt to pay Microsoft for custom support. Others may sandbox their Windows XP systems, or implement controls to mitigate their risk. (Microsoft will still continue to support Windows XP Embedded until 12 January 2016.)

For home users, I think you have easily workable alternatives that you should seriously consider:

  1. Upgrade to Windows 8.1.
  2. Migrate to another operating system.

The first option is really simple. Just upgrade to a newer Windows. If your computer still runs the Windows XP that came with it, the hardware must be really old. Have you considered to just upgrade your computer? In the process, you can get yourself a spanking new version of Windows. Computers are much more affordable than what they were many years ago.

The second option gets very interesting. What operating system? Linux. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Five years ago, Linux could be a significant handicap for most users. However, the things people do on their computer has changed drastically, and that change presents new opportunities for Linux.

What is the application you use most often on your computer? For many ordinary home computer users, it’s likely to be the web browser. Perhaps it is Microsoft Internet Explorer, or something else. They probably use the web browser far more than any other application on their computer.

The world has moved on to the web. Gmail, YouTube, Facebook. Storage is online with services like DropBox and OneDrive. You pay a subscription to access a service on the web instead of buying software to run in your computer. Some things have also gone mobile, into phones and tablets, reducing people’s dependency to use a notebook or desktop computer.

Basically, your computer is mostly a web browsing device. Some of the other applications you use on your computer may even have a web-based client. This is the reason why Google can sell Chromebooks. The browser has become your operating system. It has become your computer.

If the browser is all that is important, then surely a Linux computer is quite workable. The very excellent Google Chrome web browser is available on Linux, and as up-to-date as their Windows version.

There are many flavours of Linux. We call them Linux distributions. Popular ones, for home users, include Ubuntu and Fedora. Even within distributions like Ubuntu, there are also sub-variants. Some, like lunbuntu, are designed to be very lightweight, and will likely play better on your old hardware than Windows XP itself did. There are other options that are aimed at mimicking the Windows XP user experience.

Many people ask about Microsoft Office. I think, Office is the true consumer killer app of Microsoft. What will do for an Office alternative in Linux? Well, there are Office alternative applications. But I’m not going to talk about them. Instead, I want to point out that most people, especially home users, use only very basic features of Microsoft Office. Word, Powerpoint, and Excel, are often overkill for what they use them for. So, why not consider web apps?

Two comes to mind. The free one, is to go with Google Drive (previously called Google Docs). It’s not just a drive like DropBox, but it includes web-based applications for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. They are more than adequate for basic tasks. The other option is to go with Office Online. It’s now basically a part of OneDrive (sort of like how Google Docs became Google Drive), and it offers web-based versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote. They really do look and feel like the installed PC applications.

The web has transformed applications. The magic that your computer used to be, it’s now done by the web. Your computer simply delivers the magic from the web. You can talk and video chat on the web. Your photos, you store them on the web. Your camera and phone even want to help you bypass the PC and sync straight up with the web. For some people, the browser is already their computer.

I use a lot of Linux, but mostly on servers. I usually don’t recommend Linux on desktop computers for ordinary end-users, particularly if they aren’t very computer literate or technically inclined. But in this context, choosing between a Windows XP that is no longer supported, and a Linux that has likely a higher learning curve (we’re talking about people who are switching away from Windows XP after all), I’d still go with Linux.

Speaking of learning curve, honestly speaking, there’s not really much to it. How hard can it be to login and start up a web browser? The stumbling block, probably, is getting Linux installed into the computer.

Do you have a Windows XP computer? What are you planning to do with it?

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