FAQ: Good-bye old pal, old paint, Windows XP

Windows XP falls off the Microsoft patch list after today. Here's why, and what it means to you

Today's the day: Microsoft will serve up its final public patches for Windows XP.

Although Microsoft has pounded the "Kill XP" drum for years, the news broke out of the tech press ghetto today and stormy warnings, scare stories and Y2K-esque tales of doom were rife among mainstream media.

How did it come to this?

We'll answer that question, and others, about what wags have dubbed the "XPocolypse," the operating system edition of "The Walking Dead."

What's the deal?

Microsoft supports its Windows operating systems for a set length of time by giving customers free bug fixes and security patches. That timespan is usually 10 years, with the end of support tagged with the funereal "end of life" and the 10 years collectively called "product lifecycle." Yes, it has a certain The Lion King "Circle of Life" feel to it.

Use this Microsoft website to find the EOL of any Microsoft product.

But didn't Microsoft release Windows XP in 2001? That's more than 10 years. Do you have an addition problem?

Not at all. Okay, not that often. Really.

In January 2007, around the time Windows Vista debuted, Microsoft added additional years of support to Windows XP Home, which was originally to lose its patching privileges in January 2009. Windows XP Professional, the business class version of the OS, had already been awarded a retirement date of April 2014.

At 12 years, five months, Windows XP is the record holder as the longest-lived Microsoft OS.

What happens today? Does XP stop working?

No, an XP machine will boot up and run normally on April 9. But after today, Microsoft will stop serving the general public any security patches for vulnerabilities in XP that its researchers or outside bug hunters -- criminals included -- find.

Is that it? That's the big deal everyone's making a fuss over?

Pretty much. According to Microsoft, the lack of patches for XP will increase the likelihood of a malware infection by at least two-thirds. Most outside security experts agree, but have not pegged the increase with a number. (Microsoft based its 66% increase on what happened to Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) users after it was retired in favor of XP SP3.)

Why will malware infections increase on XP after the patch retirement date?

Microsoft posits the following:

Because many vulnerabilities are found in multiple versions of Windows -- say, Windows XP as well as Windows 7 -- hackers will be able to suss out the bug in XP by looking at the still-served patch for Windows 7. By comparing the pre-patch Windows 7 with the post-patch Windows 7, they will be able to narrow the scope of their search for the flaw in Windows 7.

After that, they could look at Windows XP for the same or similar code, possibly locate the vulnerability, and then write an exploit that will allow them to compromise the PC and plant malware on it.

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