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Getting By with Older Technology

Every week, I receive about a dozen emails from people asking for career advice, although I'm not sure why. Seeking advice from someone who's been in the microcomputer and network support business as long as Bill Gates but who hasn't managed to become independently wealthy seems as fruitless as asking persistent but unsuccessful political candidate Harold Stassen for tips on presidential campaigning. Seriously, people email me because they think, and rightly so, that developing proficiency in supporting Microsoft desktop and server OSs will increase their chances of getting a decent-paying job. But for which OS should they develop that proficiency? Windows XP? Windows 2000 Professional? Windows NT 4.0 Workstation? Windows Me? Windows 98?

Whenever I talk to large groups, I like to survey the users to see which technologies they're using. I ask how many have completed an Active Directory (AD) roll out, how many are planning their AD deployment, how many are moving to XP or Win2K Pro on the desktop, and how many still have a lot of users running NT 4.0 or Win98 desktop systems.

Many of you won't be surprised when I say that the world isn't moving to XP in droves. Many companies are still rolling out Win2K Pro, even though the OS is more than 2 years old, and a fair number are still muddling along with NT 4.0 and Win98. Even more surprising, some are still using Win95. Win95 is 7 years old—that's about 361 in Internet years—and yet people still find it a viable OS.

I suspect that a significant reason why we don't see more people using Win95 is that the OS doesn't support USB, and enough nifty devices need USB that upgrading to at least Win98 seems standard in today's world. Adding to Win95's demise, Intel's new 845G motherboard chipset won't run on Win95.

Given the inertia to upgrade, why are so many organizations staying with older OS versions? Simple. Although every new OS release offers new features, the marginal value of those new features decreases with every release. I'm not picking only on Microsoft—most software displays that behavior. Software designers and marketers create and offer the best bang-for-the-buck features in the first version, leaving the less-exciting stuff for later.

I use XP Pro on my desktop because I make my living by explaining the latest OS to people. But do I need XP? Other than work-related activities, I primarily use my computer for composing and reading Internet email, researching the Web, playing games, and writing Active Server Page (ASP) scripts for my Web site. I could perform all those activities with NT 4.0 (a 1996 vintage OS) on my desktop and server or, for that matter, Win95 on my desktop and NT on my server, as long as I didn't need USB.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that post-1996 OSs are pointless. Win2K Server and Win2K Pro are significant upgrades, and even XP's more marginal benefits are growing on me. But I could get by without all the features these newer OSs offer. And many organizations are getting by without these features—just as many organizations get by with limited building space or old manufacturing equipment.

In 1984, companies were asking, "Should we make our information-oriented work more efficient by moving from pencil and paper to PCs, or should we upgrade the file cabinets and bookkeeping machines?" That choice was easy for most organizations. The PC and networking business enjoyed a decade and a half of almost justification-free upgrades. But those days are over. Some organizations will move to XP—in their own time—while others will upgrade with every other desktop OS release. I wouldn't be surprised if half the firms using Win2K Pro skip XP altogether and wait for the next Windows OS (code-named Longhorn) before upgrading their desktops.

But what does this disparity in upgrade schedules mean to people who make a living providing Microsoft desktop support? Unfortunately, it means more work. Like it or not, the well-educated (and most employable) Windows techie of 2005 will need to be proficient in installing and fixing Longhorn Desktop, XP Pro, Win2K Pro, NT 4.0, and even Win98.

The moral of the story? Don't throw out those old books, resource kit CD-ROMs, and notes on Win98—they just might help you land your next job.

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