With the inevitable progress of the calendar, we now face the first year without support for Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 95, two milestone products that placed Microsoft at the forefront of server and desktop OS dominance. Microsoft retired mainstream support for NT 4.0 on December 31, 2002, effectively abandoning more than 4 million NT Server 4.0 and 10 million NT Workstation 4.0 machines in active use, unless IT decision makers choose to pay for continued support. For the more than 100 million Win95 users, the situation is even more grim: On December 31, Win95 (and all Windows 3x products) reached what Microsoft calls End Of Life (EOL) status, which means no more support—even for customers who would pay extra for it—and no more patches or security updates.
To conspiracy-minded users, news of NT's and Win95's support situations signal that Microsoft is trying to force users to upgrade to new products such as Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003 and Windows XP. But both NT and Win95 are more than 6 years old—an eon in the computer industry. When Microsoft first released Win95, for example, 16-bit software ruled the desktop, IBM's OS/2 was a viable desktop alternative, Novell NetWare dominated the server space, and Linux was in an embryonic state, generally distributed on floppy disk. Much has changed since then, and if the endless cavalcade of Windows desktop and server releases since 1996 hasn't caused users to upgrade, Win.NET Server or XP are unlikely to do so either: Computers and the software systems that drive them are more resilient and long-lasting than ever before, despite complaints to the contrary.
So what are your options? If you still run NT on desktops or laptops, Microsoft offers XP Professional Edition and Win2K Professional. Both products offer advanced power management and offline capabilities, support for new hardware, Active Directory (AD) integration, and various other technologies that were only a gleam in some engineer's eye when NT shipped in mid-1996. Although I understand why some corporations continue using NT on the server for various reasons—especially in small organizations in which NT just works and no business reason to upgrade exists—I have little patience for people who still run NT on desktop and laptop systems. My advice now, as it was when Win2K first shipped, is to upgrade your workforce to Win2K (or XP) before you upgrade any servers. Either OS will make people more productive, through longer battery life; more seamless integration with back-end services, networks, and the Internet; and better stability. And modern desktop hardware is relatively inexpensive.
On the server side, however, my advice varies depending on the situation. As I noted before, if NT Server 4.0 works, and you foresee no demand for features that are unique to Win.NET Server or Win2K Server, you have little reason to upgrade. In many cases, deciding whether to upgrade comes down to cost. If you choose to remain with NT Server 4.0, you can pay for Microsoft support in various ways, including per-incident charges and Premier support. Other support options are also available (see link below). If you want to upgrade to Win.NET Server or Win2K Server, you probably need to buy new server hardware, especially if you still use 1996-era Pentium Pro boxes or similar. So that's another cost to consider.
Another factor driving server upgrades is the various server products that Microsoft and other companies provide. Products such as Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 (formerly code-named Titanium) won't run on NT Server 4.0, and if you foresee upgrading to such a product, you need to start planning a Win.NET Server or Win2K Server migration. Win.NET Server, incidentally, will ship in April 2003. Because of Win.NET Server's better NT migration capabilities, NT holdouts might consider waiting for this release. Win2K Server users, however, should upgrade only if they need a Win.NET Server-specific feature or if they can take advantage of the out-of-the-box performance boost that this new system provides. (I'll be discussing various Win.NET Server features and technologies throughout 2003 in Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE.)
The case today for Win95 is as feeble as the underpinnings of that DOS-based system. Win95 is unstable, unreliable, and insecure compared with modern desktop systems such as XP Pro and Win2K, and unless your organization is so cash-strapped that it must force workers to use 1996-era hardware, Win95 offers precious reason to stay. More damning, of course, is Win95's EOL status: Because Microsoft won't support Win95 with future security fixes, this system will become more dangerous over time. My recommendation is to drop Win95 as soon as possible.
Regardless of your thoughts about the support situation for these products, one thing NT and Win95 users clearly value is longevity, and you might be interested to know that Microsoft's previous breakneck upgrade cycle for OSs is ending. Rather than follow XP with an XP Second Edition in 2003, Microsoft is taking its time delivering its next-generation desktop OS, code-named Longhorn. According to various people at the company, Longhorn won't ship until late 2004 at the earliest, meaning that your XP investment will last even longer than usual. Microsoft is taking the same approach with Win.NET Server—the company has no plans for a Longhorn-era server release. Instead, Microsoft will develop the next Windows server OS, code-named Blackcomb, separately from Longhorn and will ship the OS at least 1 year later. I doubt I'm alone in cheering these decisions: Windows is a mature product now, and Microsoft has little reason to impose confusing upgrades on users every year.