Two weeks ago, Microsoft extended the support cycle for Windows 98 and Win98 Second Edition (Win98SE) an additional 30 months to mid-2006, bringing that product family in line with the company's recent decision to move to a 7-year support cycle for its enterprise offerings. My initial reaction to the news was muted: Win98 seems like ancient history, and although I'm happy to see that the company will address any pressing security concerns for the foreseeable future, obviously Microsoft isn't going to be redirecting any programming talent from Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), the next Windows Server revision, or Longhorn (the next major client release). But the company's decision a week later to provide Windows Services for UNIX (SFU) 3.5 for free got me thinking: Perhaps we should recast all of Microsoft's moves in light of the threat from Linux. Is the software giant extending Win98 support to prevent Linux from making any desktop inroads?
Consider the facts. Win98 still comprises a healthy amount of the installed base in enterprises and small- and midsized businesses worldwide. Many of those installations are running on dated hardware that can't or shouldn't run XP, let alone Longhorn, which is due in late 2005 at the earliest (2006 is a more reasonable guess). Upgrading most of these machines will require a complete system purchase, associated custom software installations, and a support contract. And although most people agree that the cost of software is one of the least expensive aspects of a system's overall lifetime cost, Microsoft software is still expensive, especially for shops that are Microsoft-centric. Implementing key Microsoft technologies often requires you to invest in numerous Microsoft products, each with its own licensing costs and complications.
However, moving to Linux won't necessarily save you much money, unless you can economically train your employees to use Linux-based workstations running open-source software (OSS) such as OpenOffice.org and Mozilla. For many companies, this migration is quite doable, and more and more often we're seeing governments, both locally and around the globe, investigating or even beginning the move toward Linux-based solutions that replace Microsoft installations. And governments, from an IT perspective, are simply centrally run corporations, so the parallel is fairly obvious. The best-known example of a government moving to Linux is the city of Munich, Germany. Although the city has run into budgetary problems, its decision to move 14,000 desktops to Linux by 2006 is still widely cited and watched by OSS backers as a big win for free software solutions.
So how does Microsoft's Win98 licensing moves help keep customers running Windows? First, the extended support prevents many companies from jumping ship quickly; if Win98 support had ended this month, many companies would have started investigating alternatives, including XP. This process would likely escalate each time a new security vulnerability was announced and not fixed on Win98 systems. Resentment over this situation might have been enough to cause many to consider Linux solutions. But even a fully supported Windows version--XP--might not be enough to keep most Microsoft customers in line. Although the company regularly releases XP patches, Windows-based patch management is still a nightmare and likely will be well into 2004.
Now temporarily mollified by the extended support cycle, many customers who are still on the fence can take part in a bit of high-tech gambling. Using the past as a reference, it's pretty clear that Microsoft responds to customer licensing complaints, and the company has changed its licensing policies for the better at least a half dozen times since it announced its controversial Licensing 6.0 program. Going forward, customers still running Win98 can hold out for better terms or, at the least, for a Software Assurance (SA) plan that covers both XP and Longhorn. Better licensing terms can save companies money over time because they'll be able to milk their existing Win98 systems for another year or two.
Interestingly, even Microsoft's public statements about the support policy change hint that the company is concerned about the Linux threat. "Microsoft made this decision to accommodate customers worldwide who are still dependent upon these operating systems and to provide Microsoft more time to communicate its product lifecycle support guidelines in a handful of markets--particularly smaller and emerging markets," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement. These smaller and emerging markets are typically even more cash-strapped than corporations in major economies and more likely to consider OSS solutions. And many countries are in the process of defining governmental IT purchasing policies and are looking increasingly hard at nonproprietary, low-cost Linux-based solutions.
If you're still running a large percentage of Win98-based PCs in your company, I'm interested in hearing why that's so and what your upgrade plans are for the future, if any. Have Microsoft's support changes affected your upgrade decisions? And does Linux pose a viable alternative, given your business needs? Let me know what you think.
Tip: Grab the Latest Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer
The security-minded will want to pick up the latest version of Microsoft's graphical security tool, the Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA) 1.2, which adds support for Microsoft Office, Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, various Microsoft Data Access Components (MDAC) and Microsoft XML Core Services (MSXML) versions, the Microsoft Java Virtual Machine (JVM), all versions of BizTalk Server, Commerce Server 2002 and Commerce Server 2000, Content Management Server (CMS) 2002 and CMS 2001, Host Integration Server (HIS) 2004 and HIS 2000, and SNA Server 4.0. MBSA 1.2 runs on Windows Server 2003, XP, and Windows 2000 and can scan all those platforms plus Windows NT 4.0. The utility doesn't run on or scan Windows Me or Win98 systems. You can download this crucial tool from the Microsoft Web site. http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/tools/mbsahome.asp