Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Here comes the black market for XP patches

For most people, XP patches will be unobtainable through legitimate channels. Sounds like a market to me.

"Hey buddy."

"Yeah?"

"I've got what you're looking for."

"What do you think I'm looking for?"

"XP SP 4."

"Jeeze. Really?"

"Yeah, but it will cost you..."

I expect conversations along those lines to happen in real life on, say, May 13, 2014. Why that date? It will be the first Patch Tuesday when Microsoft will no longer be releasing patches for Windows XP -- unless you're one of those big XP customers, such as the IRS, that didn't leave themselves enough time to get off of XP. If you're one of those, then Microsoft will allow you to buy XP support for at least another year via its Custom Support plan.

Custom Support isn't cheap. Estimates are that it will cost you at least $200 a PC.

Well, it used to anyway. Microsoft appears to have decided that it wasn't getting enough customers for the program, so it cut the price. Companies have told Computerworld about great deals that Microsoft agreed to at the last minute, including one said to have gotten its XP patches for the bargain price of $25 per machine.

I know what you're thinking: "There's no way I could afford $200 a PC for patches. But $25? Sign me up!"

Too bad. Odds are you can't get Microsoft to accept your corporate credit card.

A Microsoft spokesperson told me that "Custom Support is provided to large enterprise customers whose migration from Windows XP was not completed by April 8, 2014. It is a temporary measure designed to help large customers with complex migrations. It should be considered as a last resort for customers who are in the process of migrating from Windows XP to a modern operating system. Custom Support costs vary depending on the specific needs of the customer. Customers should work with their Microsoft Account Representative to determine pricing."

I rather doubt Microsoft will want your business unless you have at least 10,000 XP PCs. But Daryl Ullman, co-founder and managing director of the Emerset Consulting Group, a firm that specializes in helping companies negotiate software licensing deals, said that the new Custom Support minimums were 750 PCs, with a minimum payment of $150,000 for a year's worth of support.

What you'll get for that $150 grand is patches for critical vulnerabilities. Important bugs that are the next step down in Microsoft's four-level threat scoring system will not be automatically patched. You'll have to pay extra for those. Flaws pegged as "moderate" or "low" will not be patched at all, at any price.

Even at the bargain basement price of $25, many large companies can't afford Custom Support. But plenty of them are in need of it. Even now, Windows XP is the third most used desktop operating system in the United States, with 11.79% of users, according to StatCounter.

That's a lot of users. And we know what happens when you have something that's in short supply and with limited access with a large potential market, right? We're going to see a black market in XP patches.

Unless, of course, someone "generously" puts XP patches on BitTorrent. The problem with BitTorrented patches is that you can't really know whether you're getting the real patch or malware.

(Microsoft did not respond to a request to comment on the prospect of a black market for XP patches.)

Oh, I see just wonderful times ahead for people who've insisted on sticking with XP. Maybe it really is time to put XP to pasture and find a real alternative. Chromebooks, anyone?

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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