From today, Microsoft will no longer issue security updates or provide support for Windows 98 and Windows ME, which could lead users to trying alternative operating systems such as Linux.
Eight years after launching Windows 98, Microsoft will finally wash its hands of updating and plugging security gaps in its ageing operating system. The software giant originally planned to pull the plug in January 2004 but decided to extend support because of the increasing threat from Linux.
This time round, Microsoft is hoping that the remaining users of Windows 98 and Windows ME will upgrade to Windows XP, according to Peter Watson, chief security advisor, Microsoft Australia.
"Microsoft works closely with leading retailers to undertake promotions such as upgrade discounts to encourage users to upgrade to Windows XP," said Watson. "Just last month, you may have seen the price promotion activity Microsoft conducted with Harvey Norman, one of the largest computer software retailers in the country, to encourage Windows XP upgrades."
Analyst firms estimate that there are still between 50 million and 70 million computers running either Windows 95, 98 or ME.
Hardest hit by the cancellation of support will be home users and schools, according to Michael Silver, research vice president of client platforms at research group Gartner, who agrees that support has been extended to fight off the threat from Linux.
"Consumers and schools will be most affected by this announcement because they will no longer get security fixes," said Silver. "I suspect that Microsoft's original extension of the Windows 98 support date a couple of years ago was, in part, to make sure Linux was not brought in to replace these systems."
Silver believes that as far as the overall security landscape goes, millions of unsupported PCs are a "cause for concern". In addition, he said Microsoft may be pressured into creating a fix if there is a serious virus outbreak.
"Microsoft has not fixed every hole in Win9x, but I'm not sure they've been attacked, either. If Microsoft sees a Win9x attack in the wild in the next few months, we would not be surprised if they issued a fix — wide scale outages are not good for their customers or for Microsoft — but since there is no automatic update, users may not be able to get the fix in time," said Silver.
Silver still believes that some users may decide to switch to Linux instead of upgrading to XP but he said existing applications that require Windows are likely to stop a mass migration.
"School PCs are likely to be more at risk. Win9x PCs used regularly on the Internet need up-to-date security software. Some of these users — companies, schools and governments — may switch to Linux or Mac, but application issues often make that an expensive option," said Silver.
Microsoft's Watson said consumers have the choice to use any version of Windows and dismissed any suggestion that Microsoft has a responsibility to secure older versions of its software.
"This issue is not unique to the IT industry. For example, there are many people on the road who choose to drive the latest cars with the latest safety features such as ABS brakes and air-bags, but at the same time, there are many others who are happy driving their cars that may not have these features.
"It is not the 'responsibility' of automotive manufacturers to have their customers acquire the latest technology. This is the same issue for makers of mobile phones, washing machines, dishwashers, TVs, fridges, radios, and so on," said Watson.
However, Watson said Microsoft would try to "encourage" users of Win9x systems to upgrade to XP.
"Microsoft encourages users to upgrade to Windows XP and provides information that helps educate users on the benefits of upgrading, but it is ultimately the customer's choice," he added.
Gartner's Silver said that although there are still millions of Windows 9x users, compared to alternative operating system vendors, Microsoft's support schedules are still "better than most".
"Most software vendors and hardware vendors are no longer developing Win9x drivers for their new products — and have not been for some time now. Further, most free Linux distributions are supported for a year, some for two. Microsoft has supported Win98 for 8 years, 98SE for seven years, and Windows ME for six years.
"These do not meet Microsoft's current enterprise standard of 10 years — they shipped before the 10-year policy — but they're better than most," added Silver.