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The end of Windows 98

Last Updated July 15, 2006

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Microsoft ended its support of Windows 98 and Millennium Edition (Me) this week, leaving millions of computers that are online right now vulnerable to hackers.

As of June 11, Microsoft will no longer issue security updates for these older versions of Windows "because they are outdated and can expose customers to security risks."

In fact, when Microsoft released a patch to fix a security bug found in several versions of Windows, it did not include a fix for 98 or Me, saying it was "not feasible to make the extensive changes necessary." The bug could allow an intruder to take control of a computer running Windows.

Analysts estimate that there are between 40 million and 70 million computers currently running Windows 98 or Me.

Microsoft's advice for those users is to buy a copy of Windows XP or install security software to protect their computer.

Windows 98 and Windows Me were released in June 1998 and September 2000, respectively. The company originally intended to end support for these versions in January 2004, but pressure from their customers persuaded Microsoft to give the aging operating systems a reprieve.

Danger difficult to gauge

The magnitude of the danger posed by viruses and other malicious software to computers running Windows 98 is difficult to gauge. One security expert told the BBC that the danger isn't great because many viruses won't run on 98.

However, some virus writers are intentionally targeting Windows 98 with malicious software that can steal financial information. Security firm Secure Science says 98 is being targeted because its users may not be aware of the potential danger and tend to be older and think they may have enough money to make it worth stealing.

Microsoft pulling their support for these versions of Windows also means that manufacturers may stop making hardware drivers and other software that will run on these systems, if they haven't already.

For example, Apple hasn't made a version of iTunes that will run on Windows 98 or Me. As well, these systems won't recognize a USB flash drive as an external drive without appropriate drivers. And the latest digital cameras and audio players simply won't talk to computers running these older systems.

That doesn't mean computers running these versions of Windows are obsolete, like the Commodore 64 I still have in my basement. For many people, their old computers still get online, read websites, receive e-mail and are still running the software they need.

Some people have speculated that Microsoft's withdrawal of support for Windows 98 could spur some users who want to hold on to their old computers to install Linux, a free operating system based on Unix used mainly in computer servers.

But others have pointed out that people who are still using 98 on computers they bought years ago aren't likely the same people comfortable enough with computers to install a new operating system themselves, let alone Linux. Although there are newer distributions of Linux, such as Ubuntu, that emphasize user-friendliness, making the switch to a completely different computer operating system, with data intact, remains a complicated undertaking.

Switch to Mac

If the choice is between continuing to use an unsafe computer and buying a new one, some users may make the switch to Mac. Computer security company Sophos recently suggested that home users should get a Mac if they wish to avoid infection by malicious software.

For users who continue to use Windows 98 or Me, the best thing to do is install and update anti-virus and firewall software. The Security Fix blog from the Washington Post has several suggestions for free security software, including ClamWin Free and Jetico Personal Firewall.

Also, get the latest available updates from Microsoft. The company said its online support pages for Windows 98 would remain online until at least July 11, 2007. However, Microsoft's pages for Windows 95, support for which ended in 2001, are still online.

This won't be the last time this year Microsoft will end support for one of its products. Microsoft intends to do the same for Windows XP Service Pack 1 on Oct. 10, 2006.

In that case, though, it won't be a matter of buying a new operating system or upgrading computers. Service Pack 2 is a free download from Microsoft.

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