If you’re still happy with your Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Millennium Edition then you’re on your own. Microsoft won’t help you out after July 11, 2006, when it ends public and technical support. This doesn’t just mean not having someone to talk to on the phone. It means no more security updates, too, effectively rendering these operating systems useless. It’s a bit like Mad Max shoving the weak and helpless members of the Thunderdome community out beyond the gates at the mercy of those really ugly people whose name I can’t remember. Maybe they didn’t have a name. Maybe this analogy isn’t as good as I thought it was when I started writing it.
Anyway. Microsoft says it is “is ending support for these products because they are outdated and these older operating systems can expose customers to security risks.” Well, yes, but isn’t this because you’re not updating them anymore? “We recommend,” Microsoft goes on, “that customers who are still running Windows 98 or Windows Me upgrade to a newer, more secure Microsoft operating system, such as Windows XP, as soon as possible.” Of course it’s natural to suggest your latest product is the best one, but it always makes me chuckle when Microsoft say this. You can almost hear their salesmen at work with recalcitrant customers:
“Why did you buy Windows 98? What were you thinking?”
“Well, at the time you said it was great. You said it was the best thing ever.”
“That was then, buddy, this is now. Now it’s the worst thing ever, and you should get our best operating system ever, namely XP, right up until Vista is ready and it becomes the worst thing ever. Then you should buy Vista, which by then will be ...”
“The best thing ever?”
“You got it.”
“Shouldn’t I wait for Vista, then?”
“I wouldn’t do that, buddy.”
“Well, er, frankly we’re not sure when it’s coming out.”
“So you know when products die, but you don’t know when new ones are coming out.”
“That’s right. So you want this XP or not?”
Actually, there are lots of things going on here. There’s the fact that people are so excited about Web applications — programs you run from your browser, rather than as a bigger separate program — that there’s a question mark about the need for Windows. You can run a Web application from any operating system (and most browsers.) And even if you are using Windows, it doesn’t really matter which one — it won’t really improve the quality of the Web application you’re using. So if you can’t get the user excited about the operating system, at least you can get them scared about security. That might prod them to upgrade.
There’s also the fact that operating systems just aren’t as exciting as they used to be anymore. Windows 95 had people queueing up around the block. Since then users have had to be bullied, enticed and scared into upgrading. Sure, XP is better than 98. Actually a lot better. But better for who? For what? A lot of folk, it seems, are still quite happy with Windows 98. If you’re using a computer more than 5 years old, it makes more sense to use 98, because XP will limp along. If you have an office full of computers, you might not want to splash out on XP licenses for all of them, in which case 98 makes sense too. If you’re the kind of person that just doesn’t feel the crazy urge to throw away your computer every few years, chances are you’re still using Windows 98. In fact, according to anecdote, there are still a lot of them out there. They don’t tend to show up in statistics because they’re not often, or at all, on the Internet. (Think old folk; think fixed incomes; think people who aren’t gaga over the whole Web 2.0 thang as we are.)
Then there’s my own pet theory. Most people don’t install operating systems. They just buy a new computer with it already installed. So: Hardware manufacturers are so upset that Vista won’t be out for Christmas — meaning that millions of people won’t bother buying a new computer then because there’s no new operating system to run it — that Microsoft decided to retire 98, Me and all the other slowcoaches, knowing that people won’t “upgrade” their software, they’ll upgrade their computer.
Microsoft has tried to shove Windows 98, and Me (not me, but Windows Me, the operating system) out to the knackers’ yard before. In early 2004 they backed off retiring support for these versions of Windows hoping to keep customers from wandering across the street to Linux. One piece on ZDNet back then quoted a Microsoft senior marketing manager as saying of customers, and I quote: “The more they are used to working one way, the more [it is] likely they will want to continue working that way, so it plays to our advantage. If they move to another operating system, they will need to rethink and relearn. For some people, that is painful. This is also why so many people are resisting an upgrade from Windows 98.” I love this argument. Turns out it’s all about pain. “Our software is so hard to figure out,” the pitch goes, “it actually causes our users pain. We’re counting on this pain to keep our customers. Do you want our pain or someone else’s pain? We’re going to get them hooked, and then they figure the pain they’re used to is better than the pain they’re not. Of course one day we’ll make it impossible for them not upgrade, but by then they’ll be so used to the pain, they would prefer a little extra pain than to switch to another vendor. Which would cause them even more pain.”
That day has come. Paid incident support and critical security updates for Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Me will end on July 11, 2006. No other security updates will follow after this date. You’re on your own, buddy. Good luck out there.
P.S. Actually, not entirely. There is a Microsoft web page that is dedicated to Windows 98 users. But it hasn’t been updated since October 31, 2002, and is it a coincidence that the only photo on that page is of someone in a d'oh moment, where it looks like they just lost all their files or had a major security breach on their Windows 98 computer? Talk about subliminal messages.