Hackers may accomplish what Microsoft can’t—kill off Windows XP

Not dead yet.
Not dead yet.
Image: Reuters/You Sung-Ho
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Despite the fast growth of Google’s Chrome web browser, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer still has hundreds of millions of loyal users, and remains the most popular browser in the world for desktop computer use. But that lead could be in jeopardy after Microsoft said over the weekend that its browser is vulnerable to an attack that could allow hackers to install software on unsuspecting users’ computers. Microsoft is working on a fix, and said it is only aware of “limited, targeted” attacks.

Internet Explorer remains by far the world’s most-used browser on desktop computers, with almost 60% of the market, according to Net Market Share statistics. Here’s the market breakdown as of March 2014:

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The vulnerability has appeared at a particularly awkward time for Internet Explorer users on the Windows XP operating system. Microsoft discontinued support for XP this month, so a fix is unlikely to be offered to the masses of users who still rely on the operating system that was first released in 2001.

Microsoft has been pushing users to upgrade away from Windows XP for some time, but almost 30% of the world’s 1.6 billion desktop computers still run on XP, Net Market Share data shows:

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Internet Explorer versions 6 through 11 are vulnerable, but the attack is particularly targeting versions 9 through 11, which account for around a quarter of the browser market, security company FireEye said. FireEye dubs the hack “Clandestine Fox,” and has penned a thorough explanation of how it works.

Some industries, like banking, are still heavily reliant on Windows XP. Governments including the Netherlands and Britain are paying extra for continued Windows XP support because they still rely on it. Microsoft has said it will continue to support Windows XP in China, where use is higher than anywhere else in the world. But millions of individuals and small businesses who have not updated from Windows XP will be left unprotected.

One simple fix for XP users who refuse to retire the operating system is to ditch Internet Explorer as their browser of choice. Google has extended support for its Chrome browser that works with XP through 2015.