It means you’re taking additional risk.
Older versions of Windows are certainly one example, but unsupported software turns out to be more complex than we might think.
There’s unsupported, and there’s… unsupported.
Let’s review some of the different aspects of unsupported software.
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Unsupported software can mean many things, from no longer getting feature updates and no longer getting bug fixes to no longer receiving any kind of update, including those addressing security issues. Use up-to-date software if you can, but if you can’t or choose not to, be aware of the additional risks to your safety and security.
No more features
At some point, a version of a product stops being improved. Any work that might go into new feature development is halted or directed at newer versions of the software.
As an example, Windows 7 reached what Microsoft called “end of mainstream support”. At that time, any or all efforts that might have gone into improving or changing the software were redirected to newer versions. Windows 7 continued to work, but the shift in priorities signaled the beginning of the end for that operating system.
I’m certain that in the years leading up to that, features or improvements were already quietly halted as work on newer versions took priority.
No more fixes, mostly
What “end of mainstream support” means is that even if someone finds a bug, it will not get fixed unless it poses a security risk.
Find a spelling error? It’s there forever. Does your favorite email program crash if you get too much email? If it’s passed the “end of mainstream support” date, that’s not going to get fixed. Anything that breaks functionality somehow — perhaps even losing data — will not be repaired.
Presumably, the software has been out and in use for long enough that most major issues have been caught and fixed. Unfortunately, there’s always one more bug.
The software will continue to work, but if you encounter non-security-related issues, you’ll have to work around them yourself. The software is what it is.
The typical solution at this point is to consider upgrading to a newer version. That version’s end-of-support date would presumably be further into the future.
No more fixes of any kind
Security risks are a special kind of update that is addressed for a longer time than other issues.
Microsoft does this, but only for so long. At some point, they won’t fix even newly discovered security issues. This is particularly troubling because as security gaps are found, the hacker and malware community notices such issues as well. They can now write malware that specifically targets problems in that software that will not be fixed. Those vulnerabilities will be there forever, ripe for malware to reap.
This is exactly where Windows 8 and prior versions sit today. They’re all past what Microsoft calls “ended of extended support.”
The software will continue to work, but it will no longer be updated, even if problems put you at risk.
It is what it is, forever. You’re completely on your own.
Again, the recommended action is to upgrade to a current, supported version of the software or switch to different software entirely (i.e. Linux). Those end-of-support dates are far enough out to continue to be supported and secure for some time to come.
No more updates on a specific platform
A variation on the “unsupported software” theme is software that continues to be available and updated — or not — on an unsupported platform.
A good example is Windows Security / Windows Defender. It continues to be supported and its security database continues to be updated on many older out-of-support versions of Windows. At some point, that will end, at which point users of those older operating system versions will need to find alternate solutions or upgrade to a supported version of Windows.
It’s not unusual for other software to stop supporting older operating systems after some time, sometimes long after that operating system’s own end date.
The last version that works on a particular platform will continue to work, but any problems will remain. You’ll have to either work around them or upgrade to newer, supported versions.
The software stops working
The ultimate form of unsupported software is when it just stops working and the vendor elects not to update it.
Typically, this happens when you update something else. The most common current example is updating to Windows 10 or 11 and having your older printer stop working. The drivers may be “unsupported software” on those new versions of Windows, and there’s almost nothing you can do…
…except get a new printer, of course, or revert to your old version of Windows for as long as that continues to be supported.
“Support” can mean two different things:
- Fixes, updates, and changes to the software itself.
- Official technical support and help using the software.
So far, I’ve only talked about changes to the software.
Official technical support and help can disappear at just about any time, but it usually coincides with one of the formal end-of-support dates for the software. Once that happens, there will be no further help from the company producing the software.
The good news here is the community often picks up the slack. Be it via unofficial discussion forums or technical support sites like Ask Leo!, it’s often possible to get help for software for some time after formal support ends.
Until you can’t. Even here on Ask Leo!, I’m answering fewer and fewer Windows XP, 7, and 8 questions simply because most questions involve more current software. The same will be true for just about any software and unofficial support channel.
Is it safe to use unsupported software?
Opinions are mixed on whether it can be safe to use unsupported software.
First, realize that “safe” is not an absolute. There’s no such thing as perfect security or safety. One can only be more safe or less safe.
It can be significantly less safe to use unsupported software. Vulnerabilities will be found and not fixed. Those vulnerabilities then become the target of malware for which there is no protection. That’s not safe.
Whether that’s enough is up for debate. For example, as I write this, many people have now run Windows 7 for several years since its ultimate end-of-support date without an issue. Perhaps hackers aren’t prioritizing the dwindling installed base of Windows 7 users, or perhaps these individuals are adept at keeping themselves safe. Perhaps they’re about to fall victim to something catastrophic for which there is no fix or protection.
We just don’t know.
There’s no question that everything else being equal, they are less safe than individuals running more current, supported alternatives.
But it’s a risk they’re willing (or through other circumstances, forced) to take.
Use the most current versions of software if you can.
If you can’t, simply understand that using unsupported software carries additional risk you need to account for. You typically can do so safely, but it may require extra effort and vigilance on your part.
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Footnotes & References
1: Technically, backing up doesn’t improve security, but it provides a critical safety net to recover from almost all issues — security, hardware, accidental — that might arise.