Users cling to old Microsoft operating systems

The software giant can stop selling older operating systems, and it can even stop supporting them, but that doesn't mean that customers won't still use them.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
Microsoft can stop selling older operating systems, and it can even stop supporting them, but that doesn't mean that customers won't still use them.

Even though Microsoft said this week that it will stop distributing Windows 98 at the end of this month, a new study shows that a substantial number of businesses, both large and small, are still using it.

The study, released this week by technology consultant AssetMetrix, found that more than 80 percent of companies still have some machines using Windows 95 or Windows 98. Of those companies still using the older operating systems, an average of 39 percent of desktops were running either Windows 95 or Windows 98.

"We found a significant occurrence of Windows 9x," said Steve O'Halloran, managing director for the research arm of AssetMetrix. The study looked at 372,129 PCs from 670 companies ranging in size from 10 to 49,000 employees.

The size of the business did not seem to dictate how prevalent the older operating systems were, with larger companies as likely as smaller ones to have a high prevalence of older operating systems. In total, Windows 95 made up 14.7 percent of operating systems, and Windows 98 made up 12.5 percent. Windows 2000 was the most common OS, running on slightly more than half of machines, while its predecessor, Windows NT4, was still used on 13.3 percent of desktops.

Windows XP, the most current version of Windows, was found on just 6.6 percent of the machines.

Consumers are also still widely using Windows 98. Google reported that 29 percent of searches done in September came from machines running Windows 98, as compared with 38 percent from Windows XP-based PCs and 20 percent from Windows 2000 machines.

The survey comes as Microsoft announced that it will stop distributing Windows 98 and several other older software titles at the end of this month. Microsoft also plans to end extended support for Windows 98 in mid-January, meaning that only Web-based self help will be available.

The company's policy would not ordinarily call for Microsoft to provide any security-related patches, but in an e-mailed statement, the company said it would evaluate future threats as they emerge.

"In addition to the robust set of third-party security products we encourage all Windows customers to use, including antivirus and firewall products, (after Jan. 16) we will evaluate malicious threats to our customers' systems on a case-by-case basis and take appropriate steps," Microsoft said.

Windows 95 has already passed through the online self-help stage and has been designated "end of life," while Windows NT4 Workstation is scheduled to hit that point June 30, 2004.

The changes to Microsoft's support and distribution of Windows 98 raise some issues for companies. AssetMetrix, which is in the business of helping companies move to new operating systems, said it recommends that all Internet-connected computers be upgraded from Windows 98 to a more modern and still fully supported OS.

One of the main issues, O'Halloran said, is the security risk Internet-attached PCs running the older OS pose.

"Now, there is a way to get into the infrastructure," he said. "Your buddies down the hall on Windows XP or Windows 2000 might be fine, but you become the Typhoid Mary for the company."

There are also lesser issues related to the fact that Microsoft is halting the distribution of Windows 98 as a result of a settlement with Sun Microsystems regarding Microsoft's Java. As part of the settlement, Microsoft agreed to stop distributing software containing the Microsoft Java Virtual Machine by Jan. 2, 2004. The company got an extension that allows Microsoft to support such software through Sept. 30, 2004, but officials said the company still has to stop distributing the software by January.

The end of distribution does not necessarily mean that companies cannot install Windows 98 on new machines. Those that have the disks and have certain volume-licensing agreements with Microsoft can use the OS on new installations.

Both Microsoft and outsiders expect the impact of the end of distribution to be minimal.

"I don't think it's going to mean much for anybody," O'Halloran said.

Tony Goodhew, a Microsoft product manager, stressed that the software giant is not trying to force customers to upgrade. But he said small businesses and consumers who depend on the older OS should make sure to keep a copy of the operating system.

"If the dog goes and eats your DVD, that could be a problem," Goodhew said.

Scott Warren, a nursery owner in Glencoe, Ky., said he uses Windows 98 for both personal and business purposes, although he does not directly connect his Windows 98-equipped business machine to the Internet. But Warren said that not offering security patches for older operating systems would hurt all computer owners.

"Most (Windows 98 users) are probably like me and do not intend to be coerced into spending several hundred dollars every three years or so," he said in an e-mail. "What this means is that the Internet viruses, worms, Trojans and who knows what else will have 'free reign' of the older machines compromising the entire Net."