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Windows Users Squeezed Coming and Going

It looks like Microsoft is getting users of its operating systems coming and going. Microsoft's next generation Vista OS may prove too much for older computers, but the company has announced it will no longer support the Windows 9x code base as of later this summer.

Luddites who want to stick with Windows 98/SE/ME will be cut off from any further public and technical support for the aging operating systems after July 11, 2006, including all security updates.

The delays in shipping Vista had a lot to do with giving the old Windows 9x code base an extended lease on life. Microsoft initially planned to end support for the 9x line as far back as 2002 and set a few dates to end support since then, but held off due to Windows XP and Vista's lateness. The company will continue to provide Windows 98 and ME help topics through its Web site until at least July 2007, but the loss of security updates will be the main concern.

Power users may sneer at the thought of using the rickety Windows 9x code base, but Jupiter Research has found that one in four homes with more than one PC is running the old operating system, usually on a hand-me-down PC for the kids. The lack of Internet security may force some people to upgrade, and guess which software company benefits in that scenario?

"[Windows 98] is ideal if you just use it to access the Internet, but if Microsoft pulls the plug on security updates, where are you most vulnerable?" said Joe Wilcox, senior analyst with Jupiter Research. "If Vista had been ready for this year as planned, it wouldn't be a big deal. Assuming people replace those computers, and I think many people will not, their choice is XP and not Vista."

As far as Microsoft is concerned, customers have had plenty of warning.

"As early as December 2002, we had announced an original end-of-support date for Windows 98, 98SE and ME for January 2003," a Microsoft spokesman told internetnews.com.

"We later extended the end-of-support date to June 2006 to allow customers enough time to migrate to a new and updated Windows operating system in order to continue receiving security and hotfix support. This last wave of communications is a final reminder for those who have postponed or delayed migrating from Windows 98 or Windows ME to Windows XP to finally put their plans into action."

But upgrading to VISTA may prove a challenge for many. A recent research paper from Gartner states that more than half of current PCs in large corporate environments will not be suitable for running Windows Vista by the time companies begin rolling it out. Gartner defines a large organization as having more than 1,000 computer users.

Michael Silver, research vice president for Gartner, in Stamford, Conn., also points out that Vista will likely go through an 18-month evaluation period at most large companies, meaning the new OS won't see a significant rollout until 2008. By 2008, PCs bought in 2004-2005 would be unlikely candidates for Vista.

The main concern is memory. Vista will require at least 1GB of RAM to run Vista properly, plus an additional 512MB if companies plan to use PC virtualization, which allows for running Vista and an legacy OS's simultaneously. The final specs have not been disclosed, although Microsoft did say that Vista-capable PCs need to pass the current certification requirements for the Designed for Windows XP logo, which means a newer CPU, at least 512MB of memory and a DirectX 9 class graphics processor.

Vista, Silver said, would most likely find its way into the enterprise through new computers being installed, rather than upgrading all of the existing systems. At Gartner's most recent Symposium conference, a survey of attendees found 77 percent of U.S. respondents said they would only bring Vista in to their firm through hardware attrition. Computers deployed early next year, when Vista is on the market, are likely to be wiped clean and Windows XP installed.

Windows XP, it turns out, has the same problem as older versions of Office; it's good enough for most people. "XP really is a pretty good operating system," said Silver. "It's stable, it runs their apps, and they are probably not convinced that Vista will be that much better for them."

According to Jupiter Research's Wilcox, 85 percent of Windows revenue came from OEM licensing in the last fiscal quarter. That says most customers, whether consumers or business, are getting XP on a new PC, not by buying an upgrade, and the likely scenario is Vista will follow this pattern.

"For many business customers, Windows XP will be good enough. For a lot in the consumer market, Windows 98 is still good enough. It illustrates the extent of the marketing problem Microsoft faces," he said.

Analyst Silver said companies need to decide their upgrade plans based on the hardware's remaining useful life. Useful life is defined as three years for a notebook and four to five years for a desktop.

"Our advice is if your PC is more than halfway through its useful life, or has less than two years of useful life left by the time you are ready to install Vista, you shouldn't install it," he said.



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