Our part in the Win 98 dilemma

How you view Microsoft’s recent decision to resume support for Windows 98 and ME through to June 2006 will likely speak volumes about how you view computing.

Last month, in keeping with a legal agreement with Sun Microsystems Inc. ending a long and complicated battle over Java, Redmond said it would kill support for an array of aging products, including all versions of Office 2000, SQL Server 7 and, most notably, Windows 98.

However, hours before I started writing this, Microsoft publicly re-considered that decision and said it would maintain 98 support through to June 2006. The reasons why are likely three-fold. One is sheer numbers: according to Ottawa research firm AssetMetrix Inc., 80 per cent of corporations continue to use Windows 95 and 98 to some degree. Although some likely wouldn’t know or care about Microsoft’s plans, many did. AssetMetrix points to efforts to stretch the lifecycle of pre-Y2K PCs to weather the recent economic slowdown as one factor for this high number.

As well, at a time when Microsoft is pouring huge amounts of money and goodwill into security efforts, the last thing it needed was for that to be tarred by stories of stranded 98 users left to the malicious hacker wolves.

A third factor is just plain PR – just as Canadian politicians float trial policy balloons in the media to gauge reaction and potential political risk, so to did Microsoft perhaps underestimate the amount of controversy its decision would cause.

That said, the notion of ending support for an OS that is now almost six-years old was never an error in judgment. With the upcoming Longhorn now in full-view, albeit on the horizon, Microsoft was and is well within its rights to scale down or even cease support for operating systems that are, frankly, dated. After all, it’s the last 32-bit OS on the market targeted to corporations. And given the advances Microsoft has made wit Windows, anything beefy running on 98 is bound to encounter more than its share of hiccups. Running applications that are exposed to the Web is an even greater risk. That’s why Redmond is urging its 98 installed base to migrate to XP.

Let’s be clear – obviously, 95 and 98 can and will continue to be used to select areas. In some cases, this makes perfect sense. The risk of downtime is low, and there is no compelling reason to migrate other than perhaps to make users happy. And that’s good. Pushing the PC lifecycle is a laudable goal where it makes sense, both in terms of money and performance. And yes, Microsoft could probably have done a better job getting its message out on why it attempted to axe 98 support

But for others, sticking to an outdated OS is not the wisest decision. For those who take the risk and pay the price, they play a small but important role in adding to the security woes plaguing the industry.

Putting aside issues of market dominance, product allegiances and personal pride in maintaining old equipment, sometimes upgrading is the right thing to do. And in this case, Microsoft is assuming a cost on behalf of the industry.

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