Hundreds of millions of Windows 7 computers became vulnerable to cyber-attacks after Microsoft ended support for its popular operating system on January 14, writes Company-X director David Hallett.

The end of support means Microsoft will no longer provide security updates for the 11-year-old operating system.

Technology writer Ed Bott estimated about 19 per cent of more than a billion computers running Windows were still using Windows 7 after support ended. One of the UK’s leading enterprise IT websites IT Pro suggested it was almost double Bott’s estimate at 36 per cent.

“If you continue to use Windows 7 after support has ended on January 14, 2020, your PC will still work, but it may become more vulnerable to security risks,” Microsoft said in a post.

A high percentage of the Windows 7 machines still in use will be in small and medium-sized businesses, many without on-site technology staff in the loop about the end of Windows 7 support.

Windows 7 machines can either be upgraded to Windows 10, providing they meet the minimum requirements, or be replaced with new models with Windows 10 pre-installed.

The minimum requirements for Windows 10 are a 1 gigahertz or faster processor, 1 gigabyte (GB) of RAM for a 32-bit processor or 2 GB of RAM for a 64-bit processor, 16 GB of hard drive space for 32 GB processors and 32 GB of hard drive space for 64-bit processors, and DirectX9 graphics card or later with Windows Display Driver Mode 1.0 driver with a minimum 800x600 display.

Microsoft offered a free upgrade for qualifying computers running licensed copied of Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 in July 2015 which users report still works. Visit Microsoft’s Download Windows 10 page to get the Windows 10 media creation tool.

Here’s how to use the tool to upgrade your PC to Windows 10.

  1. Select “Download tool”, and select “Run”. You need to be an administrator to run this tool.
  2. On the License terms page, if you accept the license terms, select “Accept”.
  3. On the What do you want to do? page, select “Upgrade this PC now”, and then select “Next”.
  4. After downloading and installing, the tool will walk you through how to set up Windows 10 on your PC. All Windows 10 editions are available when you select Windows 10, except for Enterprise edition. For more information on Enterprise edition, go to the Volume Licensing Service Center.
  5. When Windows 10 is ready to install, you’ll see a recap of what you’ve chosen, and what will be kept through the upgrade. Select “Change what to keep” to set whether you would like to “Keep personal files and apps”, or “Keep personal files only”, or choose to keep “Nothing” during the upgrade.
  6. Save and close any open apps and files you may be running, and when you’re ready, select “Install”.
  7. It might take some time to install Windows 10, and your PC will restart a few times. Make sure you don’t turn off your PC.

Business users also have the option of opting into Microsoft’s Extended Security Updates for up to three years. Prices start at US$25 per machine per year and double each year. The idea behind this offer is to give large corporations with hundreds or thousands of machines time to finalise their upgrade plans. But it will only delay the inevitable. Microsoft would prefer businesses to upgrade.

Some businesses, with a history of light usage, may opt for Apple iPads or Android tablets. Some will switch to Apple Macs, but the majority are likely to remain on PC, especially if they rely on legacy software for their business.

Those who remain on Windows 7 are putting their passwords and business-critical data at risk.

Users reluctant to upgrade to Windows 10 are playing into the hands of cybercriminals who unleashed nearly 68 million strains of Windows malware (malicious software) in 2018.

Computer Emergency Response Team operations manager Declan Ingram said it was important computer software was up to date and fit for the modern environment.

“Updating systems can be a fine balance for organisations. There are cost and security aspects that need to be balanced by the business,” he said.

Read Cert NZ’s top 11 cyber security tips for your business at https://www.cert.govt.nz.