Archive for August, 2014

Unlike fine wine or cheese, old software doesn’t get better with age, it just starts to smell bad. Certainly it can “mature” as upgrades and patches are applied but if you simply “install it and forget it” then you could be setting yourself up for a world of trouble.

Recently Microsoft withdrew support for an old standby, Windows XP, and, as a result, pushed many to upgrade or face the risk of exposure to an increasing list of unpatched security vulnerabilities. Many grumbled about having to make the change but it was not unexpected. It costs vendors lots of money to support any operating system so it behooves them to support the fewest number they can or risk draining precious resources that could be spent developing newer versions with even better features demanded by the marketplace.

Windows XP is old in OS terms — nearly 13 years old, in fact. So, the end of the ride was inevitable, even if not fully appreciated by everyone.

But what about, say, Windows 95? It would be hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a user still running that moldy oldie if their system got hacked. After all, that was essentially 8 generations ago as a desktop OS. There are tons of security bugs that have been discovered in it since its introduction and, while most of been fixed, there are plenty that never will be since it was withdrawn from support a long time ago. Therefore, anyone still running Win95 isn’t likely to get a lot of sympathy given the known risks of doing so, right?

What about someone doing essentially the same thing on their mobile phone? Smart phones have very complex operating systems and we are finding more and more security holes in them every day. What would you say to someone still running the Win95 equivalent of Android? Good luck!

Well, it turns out that about 20% of Android devices world wide are essentially doing just that. That’s roughly what Android 2.x matches up to if you compare its generations to those of Windows. How many bugs do you think are sitting around on those aging handsets just waiting to be exploited? A lot more than their owners are aware of, I suspect.

To be fair, mobile OS generations have been rolling out faster than desktop OSs lately so the time lines won’t match up perfectly, but the truth is that there are a scary number of mobile devices that are wide open to attack because they are running old software.

Why not simply update the OS on these devices? Because, in many cases you can’t. Unlike the PC world where a single vendor (i.e. Microsoft) can push out a new OS when they like and users can update whenever they choose (for the most part), the Android world involves a sometimes unholy trinity of handset makers, Google (who makes the Android OS) and the carriers. If you want to update your phone you have to get the sun, moon and stars to align so that all three parties allow it and that has proven much harder and slower than most people would like. Since change is happening so rapidly in the mobile space, it is hard for old handsets to keep up with the demands of new OS versions plus handset makers have a stronger incentive to get you to upgrade than they do to keep you on an old device.

What all this adds up to is a lot of handsets with OS levels that have long since passed from stale to downright rotten and since hackers are drawn to vulnerable systems like ants to a picnic, it would not at all be unreasonable to expect a buggy mess as a result.

The Apple/iOS ecosystem is a little less complicated because you have only a two-headed monster (Apple and the carrier) to deal with. This results is fewer options for users but considerably less software rot.

More freedom/choice or more security? I actually use both but hope that whichever one you choose, you at least do so with your eyes wide open…

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