Last time I focused on what the Firefox Windows XP user population appeared to be. This time, I’m going to look into what such a large population means to Firefox and Mozilla.
Windows XP users of Firefox are geographically and linguistically diverse, and make up more than one tenth of the entire Firefox user population. Which is great, right? A large, diverse population of users… other open source projects only wish they had the luck.
Except Windows XP is past its end-of-life. Nearly two years past. This means it hasn’t been updated, maintained, serviced, or secured in longer than it takes Mars to make it around the Sun.
The Internet can be a scary place. There are people who want to steal your banking passwords, post your private pictures online, or otherwise crack open your computer and take and do what they want with what’s inside of it.
Generally, this is an arms race. Every time someone discovers a software vulnerability, software vendors rush to fix it before the Bad Guys can use it to exploit people’s computers.
The reason we feel safe enough to continue our modern life using computers for our banking, shopping, and communicating is because software vendors are typically better at this than the Bad Guys.
But what if you’re using Windows XP? Microsoft, the only software vendor who is permitted to fix vulnerabilities in Windows XP, has stopped fixing them.
This means each Windows XP vulnerability that is found remains exploitable. Forever.
And Windows XP isn’t just bad for Windows XP users.
There are a variety of crimes that can be committed only using large networks of “robot” machines (called “botnets“) under the control of a single Bad Guy. Machines can be recruited into botnets against their users’ will through security vulnerabilities in the software they are running. Windows XP’s popularity and lengthening list of known vulnerabilities might make it an excellent source of recruits.
With enough members, a botnet can then send spam emails in sufficient volume to overload mail servers, attack financial institutions, steal information from governmental agencies, and otherwise make the Internet a less nice place to be.
So Firefox has a large, diverse population of users whose very presence connected to the Internet is damaging the Web for us all.
And so does Google! At least for now. Google has announced that it will end Windows XP support for its Chrome browser in April 2016. (It previously announced end-of-life dates for April 2015, and then December 2015.)
So, as of April, Windows XP users will have only one choice for updated, serviced, maintained, and secured web browsing: Firefox.
Which puts Mozilla in a bit of a bind. The Internet is a global, public resource that Mozilla is committed to defend and improve.
Does improving the Internet mean dropping support for Windows XP so that users have no choice but to upgrade to be able to browse safely?
Or does improving the Internet mean continuing to support Windows XP so that those can at least still have a safe browser to access the Web?
Windows XP users might not have a choice in what Operating System their computers run. They might only be using it because they don’t know of an alternative or because they can’t afford to, aren’t allowed to, or are afraid to change.
Firefox is their best hope for security on the Web. And, after April, their only hope.
As of this writing, Firefox supports versions of Windows from XP SP2 on upwards. And this is likely to continue: the latest public discussion about Windows XP support was from last December, reacting to the latest of Google’s Windows XP support blog posts.
I can reiterate confidently: Firefox will continue to support Windows XP.
Mozilla will have to find a way to reconcile this with its mission. And Firefox will have to help.
Maybe Mozillians from around the world can seek out Windows XP users and put them in contact with local operations that can donate hardware or software or even just their time to help these users connect to the Internet safely and securely.
Maybe Firefox will start testing nastygrams to pop up at our Windows XP user base when they start their next browsing session: “Did you know that your operating system is older than many Mozillians?”, “It appears as though you are accessing the Internet using a close relative of the abacus”, “We have determined that this is the email address of your closest Linux User Group who can help you secure your computer”
…and you. Yeah, you. Do you know someone who might be running Windows XP? Maybe it’s your brother, or your Mother, or your Babbi. If you see a computer with a button that says “Start” at the bottom-left corner of the screen: you can fix that. There are resources in your community that can help.
Talk to your librarian, talk to the High School computer teacher, talk to a Mozillian! We’re friendly!
Together, we can save the Web.