Microsoft returns to scare tactic well in dump-XP campaign

Gregg Keizer

Other browser makers, including Google (Chrome), Mozilla (Firefox) and Opera Software (Opera) will, however, continue to patch their applications. Numerous security professionals have recommended that XP users drop IE and run a rival browser to, if nothing else, eliminate the possibility of IE-based drive-by attacks.

Rains' top five risks to XP users also include using removable drives such as USB thumb drives; worms, such as Conficker, the 2008 malware that was one of the most recent to infiltrate large numbers of Windows PCs; and "ransomware," the term for attacks that encrypt the hard disk drive or a subset of files on it, then demand payment for the decryption key.

But by naming browsing and email, Rains essentially told users to put down their XP PCs, step back carefully, and walk away: Those two activities have long topped every chart of the most common uses of a personal computer, with the pair swapping the lead depending on the survey or source.

Rains' advice in each case was classic best-practice security recommendations long given to consumers, but also long-ignored, such as to not click on email attachments and regularly back up the hard disk drive.

Although the scare tactics may be effective — Microsoft must think so, since the company has regularly used them — they could also prove a double-edged sword. By letting XP slide into retirement while it still powers so many PCs, Microsoft risks tainting the Windows brand as insecure and the Windows ecosystem as infection-prone if, in fact, Windows XP becomes a reservoir of compromised machines that make all Windows systems less safe.

In fact, Rains himself predicted that "more Windows XP-based systems will get compromised" in 2014 because of the support stoppage, an easy call since it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, with Microsoft itself deciding to hew to its prior plans of ending patches on April 8.

Yesterday, Rains also stuck to the company's recommendation that users should upgrade to Windows 8.1 or buy a new device with that edition, but unlike other such calls of late, he at least mentioned Windows 7 as an option, even though Microsoft no longer sells that OS to end users as an upgrade.

When others at Microsoft last month appealed to technically-astute customers, asking for their help in migrating friends' and family members' PCs to Windows 8.1, customers hooted the advice down, saying that they weren't about to inflict the radically-different OS on people they knew.

Microsoft has created a website, AmIRunningXP.com that users can browse to with their PC if they are unsure which edition they're running.

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