Despite their stuffy corporate veneer, Microsoft certainly knows how to throw a party.
It was the evening of October 25, 2001. Microsoft was launching Windows XP, its then latest operating system. Earlier that day, they had thrown a free concert, which Sting headlined, Bill Gates emceed, and thousands attended.
A few hours later, Times Square — the beating neon heart of New York — had been taken over. A ring of photographers, journalists, and Microsoft super-fans had surrounded the opulent Marriot Maquis theater, where Microsoft was running its launch event.
To get inside, attendees had to pass through multiple security checkpoints. Bags were thoroughly searched, and laptops and phones were forbidden. This was hardly surprising. It was just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, which killed almost 3,000, and had devastated the city.
Inside, titans of business and media rubbed shoulders, while a gospel choir entertained the audience. The first song they sang was “America The Beautiful”. Poignant, given the events that had taken place in the previous month.
Eventually, Bill Gates and New York mayor Rudy Giuliani took to the stage. Together, they demonstrated the novel features of the new operating system. Giuliani thanked Microsoft for launching Windows XP in his city, while Gates loudly promised that it would be the “Best Windows Ever”.
It seems their customers agreed with them, because fifteen years later, millions still use it.
The Operating System that Wouldn’t Die
It’s estimated that around 400 million copies of Windows XP were sold over its 12+ years lifetime. Seventeen million of those were were sold in the first two months. This was a feat that wouldn’t be topped for another six years, when twenty million copies of Windows Vista were sold in the first month.
Although four different versions of Windows have been released in the years since (Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 10), Windows XP continues to command an impressive share of the market. According to Net Applications, around 12% of all computers worldwide still ran the antiquated operating system in September 2015, representing around 180 million users. Windows XP remains second only to Windows 7.
Microsoft is desperate for these users to upgrade. Windows XP systems have not received security patches for many months, which makes them susceptible for malware infections. When connected to the Internet, those machines pose a threat to their users and the rest of the Web, by potentially spreading malicious software and wasting resources.
It’s also safe to assume that there’s an element in Microsoft that desperately wants Windows XP users to upgrade to a newer version of Windows, which works with their online properties, like Bing or the Windows Store. For Microsoft, their future lies in services, not products.
As a result, it was no surprise when Microsoft finally discontinued support for Windows XP in 2014. There would be no more service packs or updates. Microsoft would stop issuing security patches. Users were very much on their own.
Many businesses took this as their opportunity to upgrade. But others didn’t. They either had too many workstations to upgrade in an expedient and non-disruptive manner, or they depended on business critical applications that would only work on Windows XP.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), for example, still has thousands of workstations running Windows XP. In order to keep these systems secure, they pay large annual dues to Microsoft, who in return provides the IRS with vital security updates.
But beyond that, there are millions more who either can’t, or don’t want to upgrade from Windows XP. They’re either steadfastly loyal to the operating system, or simply cannot move away. I wanted to meet some of them to find out why.
The Market Vendor
Few cities are like Lagos. Despite not being the capital, it’s the largest city in Nigeria, and the sixth biggest in the world. Its 15 million residents live huddled in just under 738 square kilometers, making it the most densely populated city in all of Africa.
It’s also a city that’s working hard to rebut some of the lazy stereotypes that people hold about African cities. Although some districts of the city are lawless and desperately poor, others wouldn’t feel out of place in New York or London, with their opulent fashion boutiques and expensive five-star hotels.
Lagos is also home to a burgeoning middle class, thanks to massive amounts of (predominantly Chinese) investment, its vast natural resources (Nigeria has more oil reserves than the US and Qatar), and improved governance.
This middle class is the fastest growing in the world, and is enjoying a new-found purchasing power. For the first time, these households are able to send their children to private school and university. They can afford better cars and housing. Many, for the first time, can afford to buy computers.
And when they do, they often go to small shops run by people like my friend’s uncle, Samuel.
Lagos has no shortage of large, upscale shopping malls, where you can buy anything from the latest Macbook Pro, to your weekly groceries. But the malls are mostly for a privileged elite. Ordinary working and middle class Lagosians tend to shop in independently-run stores, and in the city’s many marketplaces.
Uncle Samuel runs a small kiosk in the sprawling Alaba International Market – the largest electronics market in the whole of Africa.
Here, you can buy anything. Some stores sell children’s toys imported from China. Others sell brand-new flat screen televisions. Others, second hand stereo equipment and counterfeit copies of low-budget Nollywood films. Samuel has chosen to specialize in computer equipment.
His shelves creak under the weight of dozens of laptop computers. The majority of them are pre-owned Dell, Toshiba, and HP machines of an indeterminate age.
Behind his desk, desktop towers lie stacked on top of each other. Some of these, like the laptops he sells, are second-hand. Others, Samuel has built himself with components that he salvaged from discarded machines. Samuel also does a brisk trade in computer software.
Pirated software, to be precise. Over a flaky phone connection, he listed off his wares: “Photoshop. Dreamweaver. Office. Windows.”
I asked him if he had Windows XP for sale.
“Of course. Two hundred Naira.”
That’s about a dollar at the current exchange rate. It was, he told me, one of his best selling products. The profit margins are low, certainly. But the volume of disks he sells is relatively high.
One of the driving reasons behind that is the woefully undeveloped Internet infrastructure in Nigeria. Even if you belong to the middle class, you’ve got to contend with high connection prices, excruciatingly slow speeds, and frequent outages. It’s just too inconvenient for the majority of people to download their own software.
Samuel bypasses that, by downloading the software once, and then burning them onto thousands of CDs and DVDs which he sells. Larger pieces of software, he explained, he gets mailed to him from abroad on USB sticks and Micro SD cards. Even with the postage costs, he still makes a tidy profit.
The Continuing Allure of Windows XP
Windows XP was the first operating system released by Microsoft to feature copy protection, which checked whether an install was legitimate or not.
Windows XP would periodically phone home to Microsoft, and see if the license provided was either duplicated, or created from a keygen. These are pieces of software that create working license keys, using the exact same algorithm used to create legitimate license keys.
Samuel has been able to get around this by using a leaked Volume License Key (VLK). These are license keys that Microsoft sells to OEMs and PC builders, and can be used on as many PCs as the manufacturer wants. This saves a lot of time for the manufacturer, as they don’t have to manually install Windows on each computer. They can just clone an image onto each hard drive, and then ship them out.
A number of VLKs are floating around online, and Microsoft in the past has tried to clamp down on them, with varying levels of success.
Most of the towers and laptops Samuel sells have Windows XP installed using the same license key. Those tend to be the cheaper computers. Windows 7 commands a premium, so he saves it for the more powerful and expensive machines.
I wanted to know what the enduring appeal of Windows XP is, over fourteen years after it was first released.
Part of it, Samuel explained, was that people who are familiar with computers are invariably familiar with Windows XP. If your school is fortunate enough to own a computer, it probably runs Windows XP. If you have to use a computer with your job, it will invariably run Windows XP.
But there’s also the fact that Windows XP can quite happily run on lower-end hardware.
According to Microsoft, Windows XP only needs a 233 MHz Pentium processor and 64 MB of RAM to run. Pretty much any computer made after 1997 can run it.
Whereas Windows 10 is much more resource-hungry. As a bare minimum, you need 1GB of RAM, a 1GHZ processor, and a graphics card capable of supporting DirectX 9. But realistically, if you want it to run smoothly, you will need a much more powerful machine.
Licensing and the Law
Although Nigeria has a reputation for being a digital Wild West, it does have laws that forbid copyright infringement and software piracy. I asked Samuel if he was worried about getting in trouble with the police. He just laughed.
“No. Of course not.”
The local police, Samuel explained, were overstretched and under-resourced. They have neither the time, nor the impetus to go after small-time pirates like himself. Until that changes, he and many other small businessmen like him will continue to flout the law.
But there’s much more to it than that.
In 2010, almost 83% of all software installed on personal computers in Nigeria was, in some way, pirated. It’s socially acceptable in a way that it simply isn’t in the West.
Part of that has to do with the pricing. Legitimate software is just too expensive for the everyday Nigerian.
A properly licensed copy of Windows 10 from the Nigerian retailer Jumia, for example, costs just short of seventeen-thousand Naira. That’s about $85 USD. I found other online retailers where it costs much, much more.
For middle class Nigerians, that’s an incredible amount of money to spend. And realistically, why would you spend $85 on a copy of Windows when a pirated copy can be openly purchased in your local market for a fraction of the cost?
The SCADA Administrator
Sarah (by her request, we’ve changed her name) works for a small, privately-owned manufacturer of agricultural equipment, based in the American Midwest.
As head of IT, she holds an important role in her company. Sarah has to manage a diverse team of workers, who have to support a similarly diverse array of computer systems, from standard desktops, to Active Directory and DNS servers, to even SCADA systems.
But in reality, in any given day she can find herself writing code, attending purchasing meetings, manning the help desk, or teaching the CEO how to work his BlackBerry for the fiftieth time.
She loves her job and the people she works with, but she tells me she’s overworked and grossly underpaid, and her department is underfunded.
Once her staff are budgeted for, there’s not a lot of money left over for upgrades and new licenses. As a result, the users she supports are often left to make do with antiquated hardware, and deprecated software.
“The way things are going, I expect the majority of our workstations will still be on Windows XP for a couple of years.”
As a result, Sarah has had to take some precautionary security measures.
She managed to convince her boss to give her the budget to buy Faronix Deep Freeze. This piece of software takes a snapshot of a system which is reverted to whenever a computer reboots. This means that if a user accidentally installs a virus, they only need to restart the computer to remove it.
Free alternatives to do a system restore on reboot are available, she tells me, but she knows and trusts Deep Freeze.
To the chagrin of some of her staff, one of her increased security measures have included disconnecting some computers from the Internet altogether, and instituting a more zealous filtering policy.
“I thought there’d be mutiny”, she laughed.
Sarah tells me she expects her users to eventually be upgraded to a more contemporary version of Windows.
The same cannot be said for her SCADA systems.
The acronym SCADA stands for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. These are specialized computers systems responsible for the controlling and monitoring of sophisticated pieces of heavy machinery. These can be found anywhere from factories, to power plants, and even industrial air conditioning units.
Sarah’s workplace has a few of these. They were bought about ten years ago from a specialist manufacturer, and were promptly installed on the heavy fabrication equipment in their factory. Since then, they’ve been quietly running, responsible for the continued operation of the factory.
SCADA systems consist of multiple components. One of which is called a Human-Machine Interface (HMI), which is the computer used for controlling and monitoring the machinery. The HMI Sarah’s workplace bought runs Windows XP, on some unimpressively specced hardware. Sarah stresses that Windows is merely a platform for them to run some custom-built code. It could just as easily have run Linux or FreeBSD.
The persistence of Windows XP in this niche field isn’t an anomaly. Sarah tells me about people she knows who administer SCADA systems with HMI machines that still run on Windows 3.1, OS/2 Warp, and Microsoft NT. Upgrading to a newer system often isn’t possible due to compatibility reasons.
Because of the important role they play, it’s vital these systems are kept secure. Sarah’s workplace adheres to a set of extremely strict security protocols. The SCADA machines are not allowed to connect to the Internet. In fact, they’re kept isolated from the company network, with only a handful of trusted users allowed to use them. Updates are handled through a third-party application, and are installed through a USB stick.
Ever Increasing Threats
Until recently, SCADA systems were secure partly as a result of their obscurity. Nobody knew what they were. They occupied a small, and tedious corner of the technology landscape. But Stuxnet changed all that.
Stuxnet was a virus that was built with the sole purpose of crippling Iran’s controversial nuclear program. It’s been alleged that it was built by the American and Israeli intelligence agencies, although nobody knows for definite, and neither party has admitted being behind it.
But to do that, it exploited a stolen security clearance certificate from Verisign, and multiple zero-day vulnerabilities. Some of these were in Siemens’ Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), which are one of the many components in a SCADA system, and are responsible for directly controlling the industrial equipment. PLCs don’t run Windows or Linux, but rather a proprietary operating system built with industrial automation in mind.
This was packaged onto USB drives, which were then dropped in locations near Iran’s nuclear facilities. Curious employees picked them up, and inserted them into the first computers they saw. In many cases, it was HMI components of their SCADA machines. Stuxnet would the silently infect the system, and reprogram any connected PLCs with its own malicious code.
This caused thousands of nuclear centrifuges to spin out of control, and ultimately self-destruct. Reportedly, one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges were either destroyed or severely damaged.
Since the Stuxnet virus, there’s an increasing awareness of SCADA systems, and the important role they play in industrial applications. The whole affair has shone a bright light at the state of SCADA security, which Sarah admits, often isn’t great. It made it an appealing target for black hat hackers. More worryingly, the code for Stuxnet has been released online, and is available for anyone to download and modify.
This worries Sarah. For her, it’s not a matter of if, but when attacks on SCADA systems become a routine. Microsoft’s decision to discontinue support for Windows XP also frustrates her.
“It’s incredibly irresponsible of them. It’s just a recipe for disaster. Don’t they know Windows XP machines are used in oil and gas? In factories and power plants?”
But she can’t see herself moving.
“We’d have to rewrite the software from scratch to get it to work on Linux. Even if we ported it to Windows 7, we’d have to make some pretty big modifications. We just can’t afford to do that. … Anyway, if it isn’t broke, why fix it?”
The Home User
Mary Tomaszewski is retired, and in her late 60s. She lives on a small, single-floor house in a small town in Northern Illinois that sits on the frost-bitten periphery of Chicago.
She and her husband have two older daughters. The youngest moved out a couple of years ago to study veterinary medicine, and their eldest just moved in with her partner, to start her own a family. For Mary and her husband, this means they’ve got more time than they really know what to do with.
“We’ve been taking some classes at the local library and community college. Ryan [her husband] is learning auto repair. I’ve been doing arts and crafts.”
Ryan’s an avowed technophobe, but Mary isn’t, and she’s found that in her retirement, she’s come to depend on her computer more to occupy her time.
The Front Room Computer
Sitting in Mary’s front room is an ancient, Compaq Presario desktop computer. On the tower is a sticker that advertise the long-obsoleted technologies that cram its dusty interior. It’s got an AMD Athlon CPU, a Nvidia GeForce 4 MX graphics card, and about a gigabyte of DDR RAM. Running on it is, of course, Windows XP.
She didn’t buy it, though. The computer itself is was a hand-me-down from her nephew, who upgraded to a more capable machine a few years ago. “He’s really into video games”, she tells me.
But despite its age, it’s still more than adequate for Mary’s needs. She spends a lot of time on online forums, and on food blogs. When she finds a recipe she likes, she prints it off and stores it in a big ring binder, which she flicks through from time to time. Mary’s not much of a gamer, but she admits she’s fond of online Sudoku and crosswords.
To browse the Internet, she uses Opera 12. This is the last version of Opera that came with the Presto engine, before they switched to WebKit.
“My nephew installed it for me. He said it can’t get viruses. It works fine for me.”
Mary heard on the news that Microsoft had discontinued Windows XP. But she’s not really sure what that means. She’s still able to use her computer as normal. Nothing’s really changed for her. It’s had little to no impact.
Over the phone (we tried using Appear.in, but it refused to work on such an old browser), I explained that Microsoft would no longer issue security and performance updates to Windows XP. This didn’t bother her in the slightest.
At best, Mary views them as an inconvenience. At worst, she suspects they’re responsible for slowing down her computer. She has an Android phone (a late-model Samsung Galaxy that was a hand-me-down from her youngest daughter), and she finds it frustrating when she has to install a system update, or when her phone automatically installs app updates.
I asked Mary if she has any plans to upgrade her machine.
I asked if she is tempted by Windows 10. At first, she didn’t know what made it different. So, I explained that it had a built-in personal assistant (Cortana), an app store, and it looks much nicer than Windows XP. She wasn’t convinced.
“This does everything I need. I know this Windows. I don’t want to buy a new computer, and I don’t want to have to learn a new system from scratch.”
Windows XP Isn’t Going Away
Each of the three people I spoke to, reinforced one thing. Despite the best efforts of Microsoft, Windows XP shows no sign of disappearing from people’s computers.
The reason for that depends on who you speak to. If you’d ask Sarah, it’d be because Windows XP is tightly (some might say inexorably) integrated into the world of industrial information technology.
Some factories, power plants, and oil refineries have based their IT infrastructure on Windows XP. Entire industrial processes hinge on this 14 year old operating system. Upgrading these systems is vastly more complicated than installing Windows 10 from a USB stick.
It requires a significant amount of testing, with a meticulous amount of attention to detail. There has to be assurances that the upgrade wouldn’t have any unintended consequences. This could potentially result in entire software systems having to be rebuilt or modified to work with the latest Windows.
The cost of this in pure dollar terms would be astronomical, Sarah told me.
But as she pointed out in the interview, there’s no impetus for businesses to upgrade. The majority of SCADA systems are set up, isolated from the Internet, and then left alone. While that’s still the case, businesses have no reason nor desire to meddle with them.
But what about consumers? It’s almost certain that the majority of the remaining 250 million Windows XP installs are on personal, home computers. Computers like those owned by Mary.
For her, and many people like her, the case that she needs to upgrade to a newer Windows hasn’t been made. Her computer works fine just the way it is. She’s familiar with Windows XP, having used it for such a long time. She doesn’t need anything else.
In many ways, it could be argued that forcing Mary to upgrade to Windows 10 would have a detrimental effect on her. Experience has made her confident with Windows XP, but she tells me she’d feel much more apprehensive on a new system.
Finally, there’s Samuel. For him, Windows XP is an accessible, almost egalitarian operating system. It can run on every computer he sells, and its easily bypassed copy protection systems means that there’s virtually no negative consequences to running a pirated copy.
Until more powerful computers reach the price point his customers can afford, and until Microsoft embraces a reasonable pricing model for African consumers, he expects he’ll continue to do a brisk trade in Windows XP.
Are You Using Windows XP?
Are you one of the remaining Windows XP holdouts? Do you have any desire, or intent to upgrade? Or will you stick with XP until the very bitter end? I want to hear about it. Leave me a comment below, and we’ll chat.
Photo Credits: Compaq SR1130NX Desktop PC (Kevin Jarett), Scada B (Green Mamba), A Few Taxi Rides (quiquemendizabal), CHKDSK (Daniel Oines), Guilty (Lauri Rantala), Wax Market (Zouzou Wizman), Lagos Parking Lot (crashburnd), Girl standing in front of rack mounted servers in data storage facility (WaveBreakMedia via Shutterstock), industrial programmer checking control box status with laptop computer (Michael Jung via Shutterstock), Mature woman embracing husband sitting on the couch (WaveBreakMedia via Shutterstock)