Following through with plans first announced more than two years ago, software giant Microsoft Corp. said it will stop offering support services next month for computer users–including school customers–whose machines are still running the Windows 98 operating system.

The decision could have significant implications for schools. According to market research firm Quality Education Data, more than a third (34 percent) of K-12 schools still use Windows 98 computers. Although most school district technology plans call for computer upgrades at least once every five years, tight budgets in the last few years have led many schools to put their computer refresh plans on hold.

Beginning Jan. 16, Microsoft said, customers no longer will have the option of calling the company for support questions related to Windows 98. Until now, this service has been available on a pay-per-call basis, officials said. Windows 98 help guides and resources will remain available through the company’s Knowledge Base, an online support feature accessible through the company’s web site–but Microsoft will not offer any live support.

Microsoft did not rule out the possibility of continuing to offer new security patches for Windows 98 in the event that a new virus or potential breach reveals itself down the road. But company officials said they would make such decisions on a case-by-case basis. Although the software maker contends it has done all it can do to maintain support for the operating system for five years–long beyond the industry standard two- to three-year life cycle, Microsoft said–at least one educator says the lack of support might present a problem for schools, especially given the current economic climate.

Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent of technology for the Plano Independent School District in Texas, says he’s been down this road before. “This is the same scenario we had about two years ago when support for Windows 95 was dropped,” he said. “At that time, we were forced to upgrade. We went with Windows 2000 instead of 98, and yes, it was a significant budget hit at the time.”

Speaking from experience, Hirsch predicts schools that haven’t already upgraded their operating systems will feel pressure to do so now.

“This announcement will put pressure on quite a number of schools whose equipment may not be ready to move to Windows 2000, let alone XP, because of memory requirements,” he said. “This may mean a double hit of software licensing plus memory upgrades for those schools. That, and performance typically suffers as the operating systems take more resources and the applications are left with whatever processing they can get.”

Not everyone shares Hirsch’s concerns. Raymond Yeagley, superintendent of schools in Rochester, N.H., said about half of the computers in his school system do and will continue to run on Windows 98.

“As long as the Windows 98 [computers] continue to run, we don’t see a problem, even if there are no more enhancements or fixes to 98,” he said. “Even if they start having problems, they are old enough that we will have had reasonably good value for the money we paid. They are all in our replacement cycle.”

Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania, said she believes Microsoft did its part in helping alert her district to the change.

“My Microsoft account representative indicated almost one year ago that the company would be phasing out older versions of the software,” she said. “[Microsoft] indicated that we should expect a five- to six-year life cycle on servers, desktops, and laptops. I basically have one set of laptops that will be replaced over the summer.”

Even if schools weren’t already aware of the news, she said, they should have anticipated it. The idea of cycling out aging technologies is nothing new.

“Many of the vendors have been reinforcing life cycling of technologies and expecting that we need to upgrade,” she said. “This is not a surprise to me. State and federal technology plans also talk about a refreshment cycle. A district starts taking risks if it lets its technologies age.”

Microsoft said it anticipated schools might have a difficult time upgrading systems in light of current budget shortfalls. But the company said its announcement would in no way force educators to make undue purchases.

Customers, the company said, should feel comfortable continuing to use the Windows 98 operating system until they can afford to make such upgrades. The live-support service is a popular resource during the course of installations, but calls tend to dwindle once the machines are up and running, a Microsoft spokesman said, adding, “Microsoft doesn’t see this as being much of a ripple for most people in day-to-day life.”

Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox argued that schools and other consumers have better reasons to upgrade than the approaching end of support.

“Those older operating systems, as long as they’re kicking around, they’re potential security problems for every [organization] that uses them,” Wilcox said. “They weren’t built with encryption of data in mind. A lot of information is transmitted, passwords and things, as clear text. If you’re looking for a good way to allow a virus on a network or allow it to be hacked, keep running these older operating systems.”

Links:

Microsoft technical support
http://support.microsoft.com

Quality Education Data
http://www.qeddata.com

Jupiter Research
http://www.jup.com