Could the end of support be the demise of Windows?

Next Thursday marks the beginning of the end for one of the most popular and widely deployed computer operating systems ever – perhaps in more ways than one.

Come June 30, Windows 2000 will be entering something called the “extended phases,” where Microsoft’s “mainstream support” ends and improvements to the product will begin winding down, eventually being eliminated. That won’t happen overnight, but clearly the message for users of Microsoft’s popular business operating system is this: Move on while you can.

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Windows 2000 won’t be updated after the end of the month, and it will be increasingly difficult to maintain the operating system as new programs hit the market, as security threats strike, and so on. For example, on June 30 any enhancements to some existing service packs for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser for Windows 2000– such as SP3 (service pack 3) for IE 5.1 and 6.0 – will cease. Businesses will need to move to SP4 to get updates, which usually requires extensive testing to make sure the new service pack will work properly with existing systems and programs.

Even then, Windows 2000 SP4 moves to something called “extended support.” The key difference between mainstream support and extended support, according to Steve O’Halloran, managing director of asset management specialist AssetMetrix Research Labs in Ottawa, is that “Microsoft will no longer accept requests for warranty support, design changes, or new features.”

Mr. O’Halloran describes the situation as Windows 2000 becoming “frozen in time” in terms of its compatibility with future Windows-based applications. It means new programs and devices may or may not function fully (or at all) in a Windows 2000 environment.

It also means Window 2000 won’t run the more secure Version 7 of Internet Explorer. Other Windows applications likewise won’t be built to realize their complete functionality in the 2000 environment. New versions of Office, for example, may have features that won’t work on Windows 2000 computers.

The next milestone in Windows 2000’s slow demise comes in two years’ time – on June 30, 2007 – when critical updates pushed out to users through automated downloads will cease. You’ll still be able to get a hold of essential security upgrades and patches, but you’ll need to know where to look and how to install them. That’s a particular hassle for less tech-savvy smaller businesses that are more apt to rely on automated installations rather than skilled support staff to keep their systems up to date, and much more likely to extend as much as possible the use of an older operating system like Windows 2000 for budgetary reasons.

“If you’re a small business and retaining a legacy in Windows 2000, you’re going to be more impacted,” Mr. O’Halloran agrees. “This is a wakeup call for corporations that have invested heavily in the support and management of products and services surrounding Windows 2000. It’s time to review the justification of Windows 2000 or Windows 2000 dependences within the business security aspects of your company.”

In other words, companies may be obliged to act sooner rather than later in moving to Microsoft’s more advanced Windows XP – a sort of middle step to the upcoming 64-bit Longhorn operating system. Either that, or be prepared to take a more do-it-yourself approach to supporting Windows 2000 so that it will continue to work effectively and securely within the company’s computing environment.

Come 2010, support for Windows 2000 ends entirely. But by then it’s likely that only a smattering of stragglers will be left.

Today, however, Windows 2000 remains much in use by businesses in Canada. According to AssetMetrix, Windows 2000 exists on nearly half the corporate PCs in this country (more machines than the newer Windows XP), and has lost a mere 4 per cent in market share since the fourth quarter of 2003. While AssetMetrics researchers say XP has rapidly grown in popularity, the fact is that much of its adoption is tied to the replacement of PCs, where XP comes readily installed, rather than companies upgrading older operating system software on existing computers.

Something of a conundrum may exist for those businesses that have an eye to the future, towards Microsoft’s Longhorn operating system. Many businesses might prefer to hang on to Windows 2000 machines for a year or two more, rather than taking the interim move to XP, preferring to wait until Longhorn arrives some time late next year (or more likely in early 2007) before undertaking a major operating system upgrade. Moving from Windows 2000 to Windows XP, and then on to Longhorn – all in the course of a year to 18 months – is a tough a pill for companies to swallow.

Forcing the matter with customers by making it more difficult to maintain Windows 2000 might even compel some businesses to consider going in a completely different desktop operating system direction – to that of, say, Linux, which arguably provides a measure of future-proofing for existing and newer Windows-based applications. It’s the sort of scenario that Microsoft surely dreads.

For those who plan to stick to Windows, Mr. O’Halloran explains Longhorn readiness is more tied to hardware than anything else. Leveraging the true power of that next-generation operating system will require a significant processing capability upgrade for some computer systems – especially those driving Windows 2000 right now.

“Apply a little more zing to your hardware budget – buy more capability and processing power now so that you’ll be in a better position to leverage Longhorn,” Mr. O’Halloran recommends.

But for some, such hardware upgrades have become a vicious cycle. Windows critics rail against what’s perceived as a wasteful “fat client” approach where newer versions of Microsoft’s operating systems continually seem to demand more computer processing power and a larger storage footprint. They might argue: “If I need to change my operating system, then why not change completely – to something that needs a lot less overhead, has as much or more function and may ultimately remain within my corporate computing environment a whole lot longer?” That’s definitely the story Linux proponents are apt to tell.

And, in that scenario, the beginning of the end for the popular 2000 operating system looks a lot more like the end of days for Windows itself.

This article appeared in The Globe and Mail on June 23, 2005.

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