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What Does “Unsupported Software” Really Mean?

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Could you define Unsupported Software please? Is it something like Windows XP which Microsoft will not protect anymore from viruses or whatever it was taking care of…so that now almost everyone has changed to W7, 8 10 or some other upgrade?

Windows XP is certainly one example, but the topic of unsupported software turns out to be much 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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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 XP reached what Microsoft calls “end of mainstream support” in 2009. Any or all efforts that might have gone into improving or changing the software was redirected to newer versions of Windows. XP continued to work, but in many ways, that shift signaled the beginning of the end for the operating system.

In reality, I’m certain in the years leading up to that date, features or improvements were already being halted as work on newer versions took priority.

No more fixes, mostly

What “end of mainstream support” means is that even if a bug is found, it’s not going to 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 just not going to get fixed. Anything that breaks functionality somehow – perhaps even losing data – isn’t going to be repaired.

Risks AheadPresumably, the software has been out and in use for long enough for most major issues to 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 “right” 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

I’ve called out security risks as a special kind of problem that will continue to be addressed for a longer time than other issues.

Microsoft does this, but only for so long. At some point, even newly-discovered security issues will not be fixed. This is particularly troubling, because as the security gaps are found, the hacker and malware community becomes aware of 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 XP sits today. What Microsoft called “ended of extended support” date was April 8, 2014.

The software will continue to work, but it will no longer be updated in any way, even if problems put you at risk.

It is what it is, forever. You’re completely on your own.

Again, the right action is to upgrade to current, supported version of the software (i.e. Windows 10), or switch to different software entirely (i.e. Linux Mint 17.3), whose end-of-support dates are far enough out (October 2025 and April 2019, respectively) for you to continue to be supported and secure for some time to come.

No more updates for 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 Microsoft Security Essentials. It continues to be supported and its security database continues to be updated, even when running on Windows XP. At some point, that will end. MSE will continue to be supported on newer platforms, but Windows XP users will be left without updates.

A different example is Internet Explorer: it stopped being supported on Windows XP some time ago. That means that any and all updates to IE that took place after version 8 are simply unavailable on Windows XP. This has both security implications (vulnerabilities in IE8 aren’t being fixed), as well as functional consequences (some web sites using newer https protocols – like https://askleo.com – will display errors).

Most recently, Google Chrome ended support for Windows XP as well. Newer versions of Chrome will either not work on Windows XP, not be updated on Windows XP, or refuse to be installed on Windows XP.

The last version that works on a particular platform will continue to work1, but any problems that result 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 might be updating to Windows 10. It’s not unheard of for older printers to stop working. The drivers may be “unsupported software” when running Windows 10, and there’s almost nothing you can do …

… except get a new printer, of course, or revert back to your old version of Windows for as long as that continues to be supported.

No help

“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.

The disappearance of official technical support and help can happen 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 assistance or help from the company that produces the software.

The good news here is that 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, of course. Even here on Ask Leo!, I’m choosing to answer fewer and fewer Windows XP questions, simply because the majority of questions involve more current software. The same will be true for just about any software and unofficial support channel. Eventually, it’ll go away as well.

Is it safe to use unsupported software?

Opinions are mixed on whether or not 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 is 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 will be no protection. That’s not safe.

On the other hand, and perhaps more pragmatically, you can improve your safety by following good internet safety habits religiously, as well as backing up – again, religiously2.

Whether that’s enough is up for debate. For example, as I write this, many people have now run Windows XP for over two years since its ultimate end-of-support date without an issue. Perhaps hackers aren’t prioritizing the dwindling installed base of Windows XP users, or perhaps these individuals are particularly 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, indeed, less safe than individuals running more current, supported, alternatives.

But it’s a risk they’re willing (or through other circumstances, forced) to take.

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Footnotes & references

1: With the caveat that the software will not respond to changes that happen elsewhere. The https change is a good example: IE8 continues to work with most https sites today, but over time, more and more sites will start throwing the spurious error, as the internet moves on to use newer protocols for which IE8 will not be updated to support.

2: 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.

10 comments on “What Does “Unsupported Software” Really Mean?”

  1. How I use 100% unsupported software – with no worries and no hassles!

    When I started using computers, I bought a copy of Microsoft Office 2000 for use with Windows 98. It met my needs very well, as I do not need to do especially fancy or ultra-business type documents. I also bought FrontPage2002 and learned how to create simple web pages. Then, along comes XP….and Win 7…and 8..and 10. And I wonder out loud about having to buy all the darn upgrades just to meet my simple needs and am told that I HAVE to upgrade my software.

    Except that at least for me, that is a blatant LIE! I have reinstalled from my original CDs these same programs up through ALL OS upgrades through Windows 10 and THEY WORK in all versions without any hassles — and I am NOT running them in XP mode. Matter of fact, the Windows 10 installation works simply great (faster) than the other OS.

    Yes, I have been “warned” about security upgrades and such, which I believe are true but are also part of a planned marketing campaign to get users to buy more auxiliary software than they really need. But the fix for that is so easy, so simple….

    The cost of new computers is low enough that upgrading to a new one makes perfect sense. But if the one you are replacing is still in good shape, then you simply use that one for your word processing, basic web page building, etc, etc. AND do NOT hook it up to your Internet connection. With the variety of hubs, switches, and wireless settings available. you can use these older programs as I have done for over 12 years now without worrying about any of the so-called security issues.

    And what if your hard drive crashes on your “older”computer (for which you surely have a backup)? Then you get a used one from a reliable local computer shop and install Windows XP or whatever using the OS package for your OS of choice you can get from major computer shops and many online sources.

    Maybe I’m the oddball exception to this train of thought, but the feedback I’ve received one-on-one from people I’ve shared these ideas with has not yet resulted in even a single “tried it, didn’t work” response.

    If you’re a hardcore “gotta have the latest” fan, and are upset if the websites you browse are not over-jammed with picture after picture after picture, this response certainly does not apply to you. If you’re somewhere between that stance and hardcore old-school, hopefully this note should help you get back into a comfort zone that is…well, comfortable!

  2. Hey Leo,
    If memory serves me correctly the ad for PCMatic virus protection does support Windows XP. I’ve not yet researched it because I’m using Windows 7 Professional and also Windows 10 Professional both are 64 bit systems.

  3. Hi leo once again thanks for your regular newes letter.

    Supported or Unsupported Windows of any grade, number or version is what I want and willingly use. I have and do use XP, along with 7. I use my security
    programmes and daily update manually. Any lapses I have had with XP were of my own making but managed to get it back and running. My working with
    computers is purely self taught and reading. Your news lletter is a very good source through which I have and continue to pick useful and valuable
    infomation. I am in complete agreement with George Kaywood there is always a way around no matter what machine or software one is running. We live
    in two fold world, the money makers and the end user, like myself. The choice is mine but we fall for the flashing power of multimedias.

  4. I have my desktop PC dual booted with Windows 7 (updated to WIN10, then back to 7), plus Zorin 9. My notebook was originally WIN 7 Pro, but is now Zorin 9 Lite only. The Zorin systems are supported until 2019 (ex-Ubuntu 14.04) the same as Linux Mint 17.3 A while ago I tried Mint 17.2 for a few weeks, but had problems with some things that worked first time in Zorin. The Zorin systems come with a “Look Changer” so you can set them to look like WIN XP, WIN 7 or IOS + depending on your preference. They come with WINE and Play on Linux pre-installed, so some Windows programs will run. Updates arrive regularly. For someone with old unsafe XP it would seem sensible to try Linux (free!). I use Firefox browser and Thunderbird for emails, plus the Libre Office Suite (compatible with Microsoft Office). After trying WIN 10 I realised that I didn’t need Microsoft and Google’s invasive software, and didn’t need to worry all the time about viruses and other problems.

  5. With Windows and its endless “new” operating systems, from a financial standpoint, you are not a buyer but a renter, in effect, a serf, and as such, the financial benefit accrues to your “landlord,” Microsoft. On my desktop I am keeping and using XP, for which I invested the cost of the OS, several hundred dollars worth of books, and several hundred hours worth of learning and note-taking. Instead of replicating all of this significant time and money 5 times over for Vista, 7, 8, 9, 10 etc., I supplemented my desktop with a Chromebook which suits all of my everyday needs. In fact, compared to the unending hassles of Windows, Chromebook is a dream come true. At last a functional computer that lets you accomplish your tasks rather than tending to software issues and problems. What a concept!

  6. I have no intention of “upgrading” to Windows 10. With me, it isn’t about the privacy issues. I’m not really inclined to believe MS is out to steal all my information and pass it on to my (increasingly invasive) government. It’s about control and the dumbing down of the OS. I’m posting this with my Win7 machine, which I spent many hours setting up to look the way I want it to look and to act the way I want it to act. I then installed the programs I wanted to use. It is now a delight to work with. I have Windows updates turned off so nothing breaks and Windows 10 can’t sneak in, and still I fear it will.

    Across the room is my “unsupported” WinXP computer which is easier to customize than Win7 and easier to move around in. Since MS stopped “updating” it, I’ve had not one problem with it. It is, IMO, the better of the two OSes because it does everything and anything I ask of it without argument. Windows 10, from what I’ve read, takes over your machine, and it can and does change things at will, including uninstalling programs. Read your EULA.

    In the space of a few OSes, we have gone from complete user control to complete Microsoft control. I would love to see MS offer different versions of Windows for different types of users. Then we could all have what we like.

  7. I have Winamp on my computer it is my media player of choice.
    As Winamp is no longer produced or updated should I remove it ?
    Does having Winamp pose any security risks?

  8. End of use. Ok, no updates, no bug fixes, no nothing. Cool, I understand BUT I still use my XP machine because I know it will do what I want. I use it for messing with music with various downloads that still work – Audacity is just one. So what? XP is not supported? I don’t surf with it; I use my newby with Win 10 for that and I can download updates for my goodies with W 10 and transfer them to my XP via a thumbdrive. Out Of Service? Windows did that with various programs you’d pay for – but if you bought the new versions they wouldn’t let you share with the old ones.

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