Can't Blame Microsoft for Pulling the Plug

Windows 98 and other older programs began to die as soon as Microsoft issued Windows XP in 2001.
Windows 98 and other older programs began to die as soon as Microsoft issued Windows XP in 2001.

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Rob Pegoraro
Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Microsoft pulls the plug on Windows 98, 98 Second Edition and Millennium Edition today: no more bug fixes, no more technical support, no more nothing.

Before people start revolting in protest, consider this: It's Microsoft's business decision to make, and it makes sense.

It shouldn't even surprise anybody.

These products have shown remarkable longevity compared with other Windows releases -- think of how few people persisted with the eight-year-old Windows 3.0 when Windows 98 shipped eight years ago. But that hasn't stopped these old versions from hitting the inevitable end of a road they pulled onto when Windows XP arrived in 2001.

Win 98, 98 SE and ME all began to die when XP shipped, with a foundation so different from its predecessors that many new programs would run on only XP (and its older, corporate-oriented cousin, Windows 2000).

These older releases officially moved into the software hospice when Microsoft made a batch of critical security fixes a Windows XP-only proposition -- if you wanted a version of Internet Explorer that blocked pop-up ads and unwanted ActiveX software downloads, you could get it in Service Pack 2 for Windows XP only.

And today, these flavors of Windows are officially dead. A note on Microsoft's Web site ( ) should end any denial: "Microsoft will retire public and technical support, including security updates, by this date." In other words: You're on your own, kid!

Don't blame Microsoft for that. This is a profit-driven company with a legal obligation to make money for its shareholders, not a public utility. It has no duty to keep supporting products that it hasn't sold in the past six years, and especially not when it could instead focus its attention on software far more people use -- say, Windows Vista, which is itself needed to fix some deep-seated security flaws in Windows XP. (My Sunday column will preview Vista.)

The same things happen with other operating-system developers -- Apple has essentially held a pillow over the face of its pre-Mac OS X releases. Its last major update to Mac OS 9 came in the summer of 2001.

Any company that develops software and hardware must make the same basic decision, and in most cases it comes down against supporting operating systems released in a prior decade. Why put in the non-trivial work needed to make a product function in an eight-year-old copy of Windows when the people who might benefit from it have shown so little interest in computer upgrades in the first place?

If your computing needs don't exceed the reach of a Win 98 (or a Mac OS 9), that's fine. Your computer won't shut down at midnight tonight -- although any computer that old carries a substantial risk of a hard-drive crash that would yield the same effect. (The one machine at The Post that I could find with Win 98 onboard has suffered just that fate.)

But it does mean that you now have sole responsibility for keeping the computer safe. Thanks to the wonderful world of viruses and worms, your infected machine can become everybody else's problem in a hurry -- a large proportion of the "malware" in circulation today was released to help spread spam and spyware to other computers.

Here, we have the one potentially valid argument against Microsoft euthanizing its old releases -- that the company is ducking its responsibility to fix problems it helped create.

But in any practical sense, it doesn't matter: The quickest, easiest security fix for pre-2000 Windows isn't anything that Microsoft could produce even if it wanted to -- it's switching to safer, non-Microsoft programs for the Web and e-mail. Use the free Mozilla Firefox instead of Internet Explorer; use any other e-mail program instead of Outlook Express. Most important, use your own common sense not to download or open files that look sketchy.

It's no different from driving a vintage car on the Beltway: You don't have seat belts, so you'd better be that much more careful. (On the other hand, a '57 Chevy is cool; '98 Windows is not.)

Look, it would be terrific if computers and electronic gadgets would keep working forever. Nobody likes having to replace functioning products on somebody else's schedule, whether it's an operating system or a television. But if you want to see these industries keep coming up with new and useful ideas (in addition to the occasional clunker), that's the tax we all have to pay.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity