In a posting to the Office 11 beta test-forum, Sloan Crayton of Microsoft Office beta support gave several reasons for dropping support for older editions of the Windows operating system.
"Windows 98 and 98 SE are getting a bit old now," Crayton says. "It also relates heavily to the push to improve security in our products. Windows 9x is inherently insecure. It also takes quite a bit of development time to make our products work well on Windows 9x. We determined that it would be more effective to spend that time making our products work better on the more advanced platforms."
If carried through--there's always the possibility that during beta testing Microsoft could have a change of heart--this decision follows familiar Microsoft's patterns of dropping older operating-system editions. Office XP, the company's current suite, dropped support for Windows 95 when it debuted in May 2001.
"I won't deny that there will be customers who will be unhappy about" the decision, says Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a firm that keeps its finger on the pulse of Microsoft. "But I think Microsoft has a legitimate argument here, particularly related to concerns about security."
Leaving users of older Windows out in the cold could have a chilling effect on Office sales. Most analysts estimate that a majority, in some cases as much as 60%, of Windows users remain tied to editions that won't run Office 11 when it debuts in mid-2003. Alternatives such as StarOffice and OpenOffice may suddenly become very attractive to business users, particularly those in smaller companies, where older editions of Windows dominate.
But discarding support for Windows NT and 9x may not be the biggest risk Microsoft is taking with Office 11, DeGroot says.
"I would call the change to an XML file format the larger risk," he says. Among Office 11's most touted new features is its reliance on the open standard XML as a native file format. "One of the things that has protected the [Office] franchise is its proprietary file format, but by turning to XML, they're opening the door and making it easier for others to compete."
DeGroot notes that OpenOffice (and its sibling, StarOffice) use the XML file format.
"We don't yet know how open Microsoft's XML format will be," DeGroot says. If it's as open as the XML OpenOffice uses, he adds, Microsoft might be in trouble because "the proprietary nature of Office documents has been one of the major obstacles for companies competing with Microsoft."