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7/19/2006
12:47 PM
Alice LaPlante
Alice LaPlante
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The Slow, Lingering Death Of Win98

Pretty much anything about Vista makes for a surefire hit with InformationWeek readers. Take "Top 10 Windows Vista Hits And Misses." Or "20 Questions About Windows Vista." People can't seem to get enough of Vista, Vista, Vista. Which bodes well for Microsoft's next-generation operating system, right? Well, maybe.

Pretty much anything about Vista makes for a surefire hit with InformationWeek readers. Take "Top 10 Windows Vista Hits And Misses." Or "20 Questions About Windows Vista." People can't seem to get enough of Vista, Vista, Vista. Which bodes well for Microsoft's next-generation operating system, right?

Well, maybe.Because despite all the Vista buildup, stories about not moving to Vista seem to do well also. To take one example, there was Fred Langa's terrific article showing how to completely rebuild, repair, or refresh an existing XP installation without losing data. And then there was Preston Gralla's recent--and very popular--piece entitled "Hate The Vista Hype? How To Stay Happy With Windows XP." (Among other reasons to do so, you'll save money.)

But how many people are still pre-XP? Not many that I know--at least in the business world. Okay, I admit it, there's a creaky old Gateway still running Windows 98 in my daughter's bedroom. But it's not connected to the Internet. And she only needs it to do the most rudimentary word processing.

So it surprised me that one of the most popular stories for the last week has been about Microsoft's release of its Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs software, which can be used to turn aging PCs into thin clients that can run legacy software. After all, this product had been anticipated since fall 2005 and was in fact four months later than promised. Are there really so many older Windows 98 and Me (and even Windows 95) computers running in enterprises to justify this attention?

I use the word "enterprise" deliberately. This software isn't going to be available to consumers, or indeed to anyone who doesn't subscribe to Microsoft's much ballyhooed Software Assurance maintenance program. You want access to Windows Fundamentals? Pay a hefty fee for what is widely considered to be dubious value.

In his blog, Peter Coffee had some interesting hypotheses of why Win98 machines in particular are still alive and kicking (he apparently got a strong reaction when he labeled the end of Win98 support a "train wreck").

First of all, it's frequently impossible to upgrade proprietary legacy software written specifically to solve one company's business issues to new platforms. Either the source code isn't available, or there aren't the funds to do the rewrite. Secondly, industrial applications often run on highly specialized equipment that depends on older machines--and it would be prohibitively expensive to replace that equipment. Next, highly regulated industries often have systems that need to be validated for compliance purposes. The last thing companies in such industries want to do is tinker with machines that have been validated at tremendous effort and cost.

I think it's all these things, plus the fact that there are pockets of older systems still chugging away quite productively using either Windows 98 or Me. IDC estimates that there are currently more than 70 million systems running Windows 98 and Me worldwide. Not an insignificant number.

Although most of those are consumers or small businesses, there are bound to be larger companies that have fully amortized their investment in the machines, yet see no reason to get rid of systems that are working perfectly well given their needs. My guess is that people eager to see how they can prolong the life of these PCs eagerly clicked on the link. (Unfortunately, once they read the fine print, they'll be horribly disappointed.)

I personally would worry about the security aspects of running Win98 or Me, especially when Internet connectivity is involved. And support would be a major concern now that Microsoft has made its last call. Windows Fundamentals would solve these problems--at least for companies needing thin clients.

What do you think? Do you have any older machines that could benefit from Windows Fundamentals? Or do you have ancient systems you still depend on that will continue to run the Win98 or Me operating systems? Perhaps you think that's a crazy notion and would warn companies against persisting with this path? Let us know by responding below.

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