You could be forgiven for not noticing, but it has been a momentous week in technology. Not because of the first indications that that technology bubble on the Nasdaq is bursting, taking Twitter, Google and Facebook down significantly for no particularly timely reason. Nor is it because of the ‘Heartbleed’ bug, which rendered many of those sites and thousands of others vulnerable to hackers, and left your password and mine open to prying eyes. Nor is it even because Amazon opened a store devoted entirely to the next technology trend, the connected home, or because on Friday Samsung launched the Galaxy S5 – a phone that will sell at least 50m units without even trying. Yet every one of these things, and others, have been more conspicuous than the week’s most important event.
That is the final death of Microsoft’s Windows XP – it may not have stopped working but already the software that was launched in 2001 with a ten-year lifespan is posing a substantially more serious risk to every organisation in which it features. That includes vast swathes of government, the NHS and – inevitably – countless small businesses up and down the country.
Microsoft – sorry – is not to blame. The Windows maker has made several newer, much better versions of Windows since it launched the extraordinarily popular XP, but global economics and inertia combined to give XP a shelf-life far longer than any had realistically come to expect. The effect is that for a decade businesses have been running software that is actively hampering their productivity, and for at least the last five years many firms have unnecessarily placed themselves at grave risk of security breaches. Microsoft, to its credit, has run global campaigns in a bid to rid itself of this decrepit product, and by happy coincidence to also encourage users to upgrade to newer software. Finally, now, it will issue no more security patches.
In some ways, the small business has ever fewer excuses for not upgrading already. With fewer machines and less complex networks, the task should be less daunting. But often without an IT department in support and usually without oodles of spare cash floating about, the hassle of upgrading an operating system, and then adjusting how to use it, can reasonably be pushed to the back of the queue. Little wonder that so many now find themselves still running XP.
The fear of what happens if something does go wrong, however, should be enormous. The greatest danger comes from hackers finding a weakness and exploiting it not necessarily for the purposes of industrial espionage, but more likely in such a way that firms find themselves in breach of data protection legislation. Making all your customers’ details widely available is something that could cost hundreds of thousands of pounds in fines, not to mention the PR crisis.
The only practical option now is to upgrade as soon as possible: for my money, somewhat controversially, Windows 8 would be the sensible option because it will be supported well into the future, and because it is constantly being improved by regular and free software updates that are making a major difference to its functionality. This, after all, is the software that will be with us for an age of 3D printing that is yet to come, but which already has the necessary support built in to it. Any business with the slightest interest in making quick, 3D prototypes of products will reap immediate benefits.
But there’s a lengthier moral, too: when XP was launched, computers were simply tools that replaced function recently done on paper, and in many cases merely complemented continuing paper processes. Today they are pivotal to every level of nearly every business, and encompass phones and tablets as well as laptops and desktop PCs. No company can afford to delegate such vital decisions to a technician or a department. These should increasingly be matters for a company board and its owners – no strategy should depend on unthinkingly using any single thing for a decade or more.