Farewell, Windows 98

Microsoft closes the books on operating system, but millions of users won't let go.

The Windows 98 family becomes obsolete this week—but thats not stopping corporate users from running the PC operating systems. Microsoft Corp. announced last month it will end support for Windows 98 and Windows 98 Second Edition. The Redmond, Wash., software maker also removed Windows 98 from its sales channels, citing the terms from its legal settlement with Sun Microsystems Inc. over Java as the impetus.

And while some enterprise customers contacted said they understand Microsofts motives, they are in no hurry to move from the older operating systems. IDC, of Framingham, Mass., estimates that 58 million users still run Windows 98 and that 21 million users still run Windows 95. In addition, Ottawa-based AssetMetrix Inc.s Research Labs found that more than 80 percent of companies surveyed still run Windows 98 and/or Windows 95 computers in their business or enterprise.

But IT professionals, such as Matthew Patton, a network security engineer in Arlington, Va., do not see the move as a big deal. Instead, they view it as Microsofts attempt to force users to upgrade to what they see as more insecure software.

"Windows 98 has precious little capability compared to, say, Windows 2000 or [Windows] XP," Patton said. "Granted, it doesnt offer much in the way of desktop security. Users clicking on wanton e-mail or URLs can toast their box more readily than a properly configured machine in the Windows NT family. But so many corporate NT-class machines cant be bothered to do security properly anyway.

"Windows 98 works just fine for desktop use. I still use it. I read my e-mail, surf the Web, generate a document or two. Isnt that the very definition of 99.8 percent of all PCs?" he said.

A system administrator and integrator, who requested anonymity, agreed, saying that there have not been any significant security updates to Windows 98 and Windows 98 Second Edition in more than a year.

"There have been tons of updates for IE [Internet Explorer], Outlook and Windows Media Player, which are common components on Win 98, but very few that affect the operating system," the administrator said. "In fact, the most common recent vulnerabilities have not affected Win 98, and the recent evidence would indicate that Win 98 systems are vastly more secure than XP machines. I use 98SE. I still build machines for customers based on 98SE."

The major reason for Microsofts decision to stop supporting legacy operating systems is that many companies had been delaying PC refreshment purchases during the recent economic slowdown, Patton said.

Patton also questioned comments in the recent AssetMetrix study "Usage Analysis & Risks of Obsolete Operating Systems: Microsoft Windows 95 & Windows 98," which recommended that companies with a significant investment in Windows 98 and which did not purchase an extended hot-fix support contract last summer, should immediately evaluate strategies to retire all installations of "Internet-facing" Windows.

"What does Internet-facing mean?" Patton asked. "That the PC is out there hosting connections coming from the wider Net or that a user is using a machine to surf? If it is the former, anybody using 98 as a server needs to be summarily shot," he said. "If it is the latter, whats the big deal? Cant content filtering, virus protection, user education and refusing to allow users to run lousy products pretty much put the kibosh to most of the bugs? I mean, IE and Outlook should have been removed from every corporate desktop ages ago. Running Office/IE/Outlook on 95/98 or NT/2K/XP makes no difference."

Jim Lambright, an IT manager with Roth Manufacturing Corp., in New London, Ohio, said many companies found themselves in a Catch-22 situation. They were running outdated PC business applications but were not making enough profit to upgrade hardware and software.

"Oftentimes, the budgets just dont allow for all these fancy upgrades," Lambright said. "Its the If it aint broke, dont fix it scenario. Im in northern Ohio, and the region is losing businesses so fast its unreal. Upgrades are not a prerequisite if your profit/loss margin is in the less than 1 percent range.

"Also, to upgrade both the desktop and network operating system will not improve production on the shop floor, which is where the money is made," Lambright said. "I cant even come close to being able to pitch a justification proposal when I know we need new machinery on the shop floor. That is why Linux will become increasingly popular in the business world."

In addition, Microsoft support was often a case of too little, too late, Lambright said. Support for its older operating systems such as Windows 95 and Windows 98 also seemed to have less priority than support for NT products. "I dont believe Microsoft ever intended Windows 98SE to be so big in the enterprise. But it also appears that the newer bugs have been written for NT-based systems, which helps a bit," Lambright said.