We can't say Microsoft never warned us.
The dominant player in the mainstream office software market has told the world, quite clearly, that support for Windows XP will cease on April 8, 2014 -- that's a little more than two weeks from today. That means no more updates and no more patches. Starting on that date, as far as Microsoft is concerned, computers running Windows XP are "unprotected."
That's a headache for businesses, of course, and for home PC users -- anyone, in fact, who has not migrated yet to Windows 8. But we're also getting some insight into just what it means for governments.
In the UK, Freedom of Information requests by The Register have revealed that "thousands" of government and public sectors PCs will miss the April deadline, triggering a potential hacker storm. HM Revenue & Customs (the tax people) and the NHS (the health service) are particularly vulnerable. Plans are in place to migrate from Windows XP, but they won't be fully executed until late in the year.
(Microsoft will offer extended protection, but at a cost -- $200 per desktop per year in year one, and escalating -- which is prohibitive for organizations with thousands of unprotected PCs.)
In the US, an estimated 10% of government computers will be unprotected come doomsday. Maybe 10% doesn't seem so bad, but of course that's 10% of several million: an awful lot of vulnerable PCs. What's more, according to the Washington Post, this includes "thousands of computers on classified military and diplomatic networks."
Elsewhere? That's the unanswered question. It's relatively easy to estimate the scope of the problem in countries like the UK and the States, but what about the governments of developing countries, where PC populations may be smaller, but in some (many?) cases less well maintained? I suspect that we'll get a sense of the problems they face only after the deadline has well and truly passed.
But wait. Is it possible that this is just Y2K all over again -- the moment when the world's networks just didn't, in fact, go dark? It may be small comfort, but some analysts are telling us to relax: Government computers won't become vulnerable on April 8, 2014.
Why? Because they're vulnerable already and have been for years.
If you foresee special problems for Windows-based government systems in your neck of the woods, let us know on the message boards below.