Nothing Lasts Forever

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Rob Pegoraro
Monday, July 17, 2006; 2:54 PM

One of my favorite abbreviations is "TANSTAAFL" -- short for "There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch." Robert A. Heinlein's wise words explain a multitude of political, social and economic situations, and the market for commercial software is no exception.

A lot of people, however, take exception to that principle when it comes to Windows -- or so I can conclude from the e-mail response to last week's bonus column about Microsoft ending support for Windows 98, 98 Second Edition and Millennium Edition. In that piece, I wrote:

"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."

Here's a sample of the (mostly negative) feedback I got, with my responses to each following:

"So in other words, if I own a Ford automobile that is eight years old, then it is okay for the Ford dealer to say he won't work on it anymore?"

No. But I also wouldn't expect the Ford dealer to work on it *for free*, which is how all these Microsoft patches to 98/98 SE/Me have been offered. And you can still get all of Microsoft's old patches; the company just isn't going to write any new ones.

Furthermore, cars start at $10,000 and can kill you if misused. These Windows releases sold for $200-and-change, and if misused they might kill your hard drive. (My own car, for what it's worth, is 14 years old, and I haven't heard from its manufacturer since a year or so after I bought it used in 1997 -- nor do I expect to do so ever again. It's my job to keep it in working order. In return for making that effort, I get to keep the money I might otherwise spend on a new ride.)

"I'm one of the Win98 diehards. I don't do music, I don't do games and I don't do heavy graphics. A free-lance writer, I get what I want to do done with 98, thank you very much. I have a firewall and an AV program in place with the definitions up to date. ... I don't think I'm going to play Microsoft's game any longer. Instead of XP or Vista, I'm going to give Linux a good hard look."

No argument with all that. You know what you want out of the computer, you're aware of 98's limits, you're doing what's necessary to stay secure online and -- having decided that you don't like Microsoft -- you're taking your business elsewhere. I think that last part is called capitalism at work.

"I live in a poorer section of the country so I would like to see Microsoft exchange Win 98 and ME disks for a Win XP Home disk at a moderate price that does not require an old disk to install. If Microsoft weren't so greedy, they could have been doing this for some time. Gates never needed the [billions] his assets are worth."

First of all, Microsoft has always offered cheaper pricing to people upgrading from previous versions (unlike Apple, whose OS X upgrades have generally come without trade-up discounts). Second, if Microsoft were to do that, a lot of the recipients would find themselves with new software that wouldn't run on their old machines. Third, if you're going to argue this in terms of how Bill Gates should best spend his fortune, are you prepared to say that healthy First World computer users take precedence over people dying of malaria in the Third World?

"Your pragmatic approach ignores the hordes of CG graphics designers like myself that have spent tens of thousands of dollars on hardware and software that won't run on XP, and certainly not Vista."

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