Microsoft Ending Anti-Virus Protection for Windows XP

A dialogue box from the Windows XP version of Microsoft Security Essentials.

A dialogue box from the Windows XP version of Microsoft Security Essentials.

The end is near for Microsoft's widely used operating system, Windows XP. April 8 the long-awaited end-of-support date for the 12-year-old OS — shouldn't take most users by surprise.

However, another Microsoft decision regarding XP may startle those die-hard XP users who refuse to upgrade. This week, the company announced that on April 8, it will also end support for the Windows XP version of Microsoft Security Essentials, the company's free security and anti-virus application.

Not only will users of Windows XP receive no more security patches after April 8, but their installations of Microsoft Security Essentials will get no more virus updates, leaving their machines doubly unprotected.

MORE: How to Migrate From Windows XP Before Microsoft Pulls the Plug

Ending support for Microsoft Security Essentials is Microsoft's not-so-subtle way of nudging XP loyalists toward its newest offering, Windows 8.1. With the free security application out of the picture, the millions of users still clinging to XP will have to find another free anti-virus software product, or risk the onslaught of malware attacks that will likely follow XP's demise.

Between 20 and 30 percent of Internet users worldwide still use Windows XP, according to recent data, including more than 50 percent of users in China. Businesses are scrambling to avoid the coming "XPocalypse," but millions of individuals will also need to update their systems to avoid unrestricted malware attacks.

If you're still using XP on your PC, Microsoft recommends upgrading to a newer version of Windows before April 8. To upgrade to the newest version of Windows from XP, you'll first need to download and run Microsoft's Window 8 Upgrade Assistant to check if your PC meets the hardware requirements for Windows 8. If your PC doesn't, you should consider buying a new computer preloaded with Windows 8.

Whether or not their PCs can support Windows 8, current XP users should also back up any data they wish to transfer to their new systems, as upgrading from XP (or Windows Vista) means losing all files, settings or programs currently stored on the old OS.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo on Facebook or on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide on Facebook or on Google+.

Elizabeth is a Live Science associate editor who writes about science and technology. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University and has also written for, Everyday Health, Yahoo and Tom's Guide, among others. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.