service-pack security options
Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business
August 3 - 9, 2010; issue 1084
High Tech Office column
Despite the popularity of Microsoft’s Windows 7, lots of users continue
to run its two-generations-older Windows XP – Microsoft claims it’s
used on 74% of business PCs worldwide.
And not just on older hardware.
The Vancouver School Board, for instance, installed standardized
systems for teachers and students over the summer of 2009, just prior
to the Win 7 release. Its choice for the new systems: XP.
If you’re running XP, take a moment to right-click on the My Computer
icon (either on the desktop or in the start menu). Pick “properties”
from the pop-up menu for a brief overview of your computer, including a
note on what version of XP is installed.
If it mentions Windows XP (professional or home version) Service Pack
3, you can jump to the end of this column. But if you’re running an
earlier version, then it’s decision time. Microsoft dropped support for
Service Pack 2 (SP2), including security updates, on July 13. Earlier
XP versions – SP1 and the original 2001 release – have long been
If you’re running SP2 – despite Microsoft’s having announced its plans
to drop support for SP2 back in April 2008, you’re not alone. Earlier
this year, Softchoice surveyed more than a quarter-million corporate
and government PCs in 117 U.S. and Canadian organizations and found
almost half running XP SP2. Its research note
suggests that nearly 80% of
organizations surveyed face potential security risks due to the large
numbers of SP2 systems in use.
Microsoft and the IT industry want you to run out and buy new hardware
running Windows 7. But if your current systems are meeting your needs,
the end of support for Service Pack 2 doesn’t mean you have to replace
your systems right now.
On July 14, all those SP2 systems started up as normal and continued to
run as well as they did the previous morning. And while staying current
on security patches (for Windows and all your applications) is
important, there’s a relatively straightforward – and no-cost – way to
stay on the upgrade pipeline. XP Service Pack 3 has been available
since mid-2008 and will be supported through April 2014.
To get SP3, start with Windows or Microsoft update. If it isn’t listed
there, this link
will take you to Microsoft’s page and
let you download and install it manually. Don’t be put off by the
description that it’s for “IT Professionals and Developers.” Although
Softchoice’s report suggests that for an organization with a large
number of SP2 systems upgrading to SP3 is a “not insignificant task,”
upgrading one or two computers is well within the capabilities of a
home or small-business computer owner.
(The minority of users running 64-bit Windows XP versions don’t have an
SP3 update; they will keep getting updates until 2014 with no extra
Along with checking whether you’re running a no-longer-supported
version of Windows, take a moment and check your version of Internet
Windows XP comes with IE6, a version that’s also two generations old.
Microsoft is finding it increasingly difficult to support this old
version. The attacks earlier this year on Google were limited to
systems using IE6. Following those attacks, Microsoft’s Security
Research and Defense blog urged users to move to the newer Internet
Explorer 7 or 8 versions, which offered “reduced risk to the exploit.”
Moving to Windows 7 would get you a new version of Internet Explorer as
part of the package, but newer versions
of IE can be installed onto Windows
So the end of official support for Windows XP Service Pack 2 is no
cause for panic. Free updates to XP Service Pack 3 and a newer version
of Internet Explorer will help keep your current hardware and software
usable and updated.
Just don’t forget: following these steps is important to keep Windows
XP systems secure, but they’re in no way the full-meal deal to keep
cyber-safe. Firewalls, up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware software,
and – perhaps most of all – care and thoughtfulness online remain
necessary even if Windows is fully patched.