It doesn't seem that long ago that we were discussing the ramifications of implementing Windows 98 in the corporate environment. Yet, on January 16, Microsoft is going to pull the life-support plug on Windows 98, and with that move, an entire generation of personal computers will begin their steady march to the nation's landfills.
How's that? After January 16, Windows 98 enters the dark land of Microsoft non-support. Security fixes from Microsoft will cease for both Windows 98 and Windows 98 SE, and answers to technical questions regarding problems will be available only through Microsoft's Web site. Microsoft will no longer be responsible for providing security fixes or other services for the operating system.
So what's the big deal? Who cares if we send another CD into the recycling bin?
Well, despite the bleak future of the Windows 98 operating system, an estimated 80% of companies in the United States and Canada are still using it, according to AssetMetrix, a Canadian asset management service. And that's not all: Within those companies surveyed, a whopping 39% of their PCs are still Windows 98 machines.
Security Services for the Obsolete System Will Cease
The technical problem, according to AssetMetrix, is not that the operating system is obsolete, but that the security holes that still exist in Win 98 make it a continuing threat to organizations that use it. Now, as Microsoft stops patching the security--as it is scheduled to do in January--companies that have these systems connected to the Internet will have to face new virus and worm threats without any Microsoft support. Future worms with power on the scale of Sobig.F--worms that take over the control of machines without the knowledge of their owners--could turn these languishing Windows 98 machines into a legion of zombie spam purveyors. With no security support available from Microsoft at all, these organizations must seriously consider replacing these pieces of equipment.
Windows 98 and the IT Recession
"As we began to help some of our customers plan for their migration away from Windows 98, we noticed that the number of Windows 98-based PCs was higher than we would have anticipated," said Steve O'Halloran, Managing Director, AssetMetrix Research Labs. "While anecdotally there are a few reasons for the retention of Windows 95 or Windows 98 systems, our data indicated that the major driver is a direct result of delaying PC refreshment purchases during the recent economic slowdown."
But the problem is not merely operating system-based. Most of the machines running Windows 98 can't run Microsoft's XP OS replacement: They're too small because they were tailored specifically for Window 98 implementation.
The Last of DOS-Based Operating Systems
Windows 98 was introduced on June 30, 1998. Windows 98 SE (Second Edition) was introduced one year later and is also based the Win32 architecture that evolved from Windows 95 and originated from DOS and Windows 3.X operating systems. It is the last corporate-based Win32 OS remaining on the market. (Windows ME came out in 1999, but--compared to Windows 98--ME was targeted at the consumer market, and it doesn't have a significant corporate profile. Windows ME is also scheduled to be dropped from Microsoft support in 2004.)
According to AssetMetrix, the majority of the machines that are still running Win 98 were purchased during the heyday when hardware manufacturers were being forced to bundle the operating system with every machine they sold. This led to the marketing of inexpensive, highly tailored pieces of equipment that were not amenable to massive upgrades.
Windows 2000 and Windows XP, by comparison, require substantially greater resources because they were based upon the Windows NT operating system, a completely different environment that is not scheduled for obsolescence until 2007. (It's projected that by that time Microsoft will have delivered its long-awaited "Longhorn" technology for desktops and servers.)
The Fallout of Proprietary Monopoly Operating Systems
So why is Windows 98 being retired so early, when clearly it has an incredibly substantial user base? One reason is the price it is costing Microsoft to support two different architectures. Consider that each time a new security hole is discovered, Microsoft must examine the implications across all of its operating system offerings. Add to this the cost of architecting applications that must address a split operating system base, and you have a recipe for disaster. Imagine the confusion when Longhorn is delivered in 2005 if Win 98 were still being supported.
But probably the main reason that Microsoft is killing Windows 98 is because of its 2001 legal settlement with Sun Microsystems. In the lawsuit, Sun sued Microsoft for its infringement of its Java Virtual Machine (JVM) technology, claiming that Microsoft had violated the terms of its licensing agreement. Upon settling the suit, Microsoft determined that it would no longer offer the Sun JVM in any operating system packages that it marketed. Unfortunately, Windows 98 relies upon some of that JVM technology, leaving Microsoft exposed to potential future litigation.
Planned Obsolescence: The Gift You Keep on Buying
According to AssetMetrix's survey of 670 companies that range in size from 10 to 49,000 employees, most of the Windows 98 machines still in use were purchased between 1998 and 1999, before the IT recession hit. This translates into machines that sport a minimum configuration of a 489DX 66 MHz processor, 16 MB memory, and 195 MB of hard disk.
By comparison, moving to Windows XP will require companies to repurchase machines with a minimum of a Pentium 233 MHz processor, 64 MB memory, and 1.5 GB hard disk. (The recommended configuration is substantially higher.) This is a massive increase in horsepower to essentially perform the same functions that are currently being accomplished by the older machines.
Unforeseen Expenses in an Obsolete Windows System
In addition, as these replacement machines head for landfills, companies in many states will be saddled with the additional cost of hazardous waste fees, costs that can run as much as $150 per machine.
All of this has little to do with the actual usefulness of the machinery itself. By comparison, some analysts contend that these same pieces of equipment, running Linux and various desktop solutions, could potentially continue their usefulness into the foreseeable future, running applications written to non-proprietary international standards with less exposure to security flaws.
Happy New Year, Microsoft!
Nonetheless, Microsoft's plan to make Windows 98 obsolete is bound to spawn a mini-boom in industry hardware sales, while simultaneously queuing customers back to Microsoft's turnstile. Fortunately, the cost of hardware has continued to fall dramatically as dealers struggle to compete, offering more power for the buck than ever before.
Needless to say, however, the cost of Microsoft products has not decreased at all. Its products continue to rise, without any noticeable increase in corporate functionality, productivity, or ease of use. For instance, the cost of purchasing a copy of Windows 98 was about $80 retail in 1998. Today, the retail cost of Microsoft's replacement Windows XP Pro ranges between $150 and $250 dollars. When you throw in the expense of retiring the old equipment, repurchasing new applications, retraining personnel, and rolling out the new packages, Microsoft can anticipate a very happy new year in the months ahead.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press.