I've always maintained that prior to Windows XP, Windows 98 SE was one of the best versions of Windows ever released. Even so, Windows 98 is coming to the end of its lifespan, and if you haven't already done so, it's time to begin seriously looking at upgrading to a new operating system. Soon, Microsoft will completely discontinue support for Windows 98 and most future applications will not run on it.
Because of this, I want to try to clarify Microsoft's rather confusing product lifecycle policies, which deal with the manner in which products are supported after a product is phased out. The product lifecycle policies were designed to standardize the lifecycle of most Microsoft products and to offer some degree of predictability as to what happens when a product is phased out.
I would like to point out that Microsoft's product lifecycle policies do not affect a product's license or how long the product can be legally used. The product's lifecycle policy only states how long technical assistance will be available.
Business or consumer
Microsoft lumps the majority of its products into one of two categories: business and development software or consumer/hardware/multimedia. Microsoft states that it will offer a minimum of five years of mainstream support for business and development software, starting from the product's initial public release date. Mainstream support includes all of the usual support options, such as no-charge incident support, paid incident support, support charged on an hourly basis, warranty claim support, and hot-fix support. Furthermore, most business and development software products will receive a minimum of eight years of online, self-help support. After the five years of mainstream support expires for business and development software, Microsoft offers the option to purchase an additional two years of extended support.
Extended support is a little tricky to explain. First, extended support does not include things like warranty support, design changes, or new features. After the standard support period expires, these types of services are no longer available for the product. Extended support can include technical assistance or hot-fix support, and is usually billed on an hourly basis. The only way that a customer is eligible to receive extended hot-fix support is to purchase an extended hot-fix contract within 90 days of the time that the product's standard support period expires. The exception to this is security hot fixes, which don't require a contract. For those who don't require a hot fix, but require technical assistance instead, no support contract is required. Technical assistance is available by telephone on a pay-per-incident basis.
The hot-fix issue brings up another interesting point regarding the product lifecycle policy. For products that are currently selling through retailers or through volume licensing, Microsoft supports both the current service pack and the previous service pack. For products that are no longer shipping, such as Windows 98, Microsoft supports the current service pack only. So what does this mean? It means that if you have a current Microsoft product, you can request a hot fix to work with either the current service pack or with the previous service pack. If you have an older Microsoft product, you can still request hot fixes, but Microsoft will not create a hot fix for an old service pack.
The support policy for consumer/hardware/multimedia products works differently from that of business and development software. As with business and development software, Microsoft offers five years of standard support for consumer, hardware, and multimedia products, beginning on the day of the product's public release. Microsoft also offers up to eight years of online self-help support for such products. There are a couple of exceptions, though. Products released annually, such as Money, Encarta, and Streets & Trips, include only three years of mainstream support. And Xbox games aren't included in the product lifecycle policy at all. The other big difference between business and development software and consumer/hardware/multimedia is that no extended support is available for the consumer-level products.
Windows 98 support options
Mainstream support for Windows 98 was retired on June 30, 2002, and the extended support will be retired on June 30, 2003. If you don't like the idea of not being able to get technical support for Windows 98 after next June, you may not be completely out of luck. There are some loopholes in the product lifecycle support policy. Arrangements can be made if you require support for Windows 98 (or for any other business and development software product) beyond the extended support retirement date.
Microsoft has stated that if laws, market conditions, business needs, and so on require you to have support for a product beyond the extended support period, it will work with you to form a custom support relationship. Such a custom support relationship may offer product support well beyond 10 years from a product's initial release date. Furthermore, some of the Microsoft strategic partners may also offer product support beyond the extended product support period. For information on obtaining product support beyond the support period, call your Microsoft account representative.
Upgrade or not upgrade?
So what do you do if you're still running Windows 98 and think it is time to upgrade? It really depends on your needs. Remember that there is no expiration policy that will disable Windows 98 next June. Windows 98 will continue to work the same way that it always has. Additionally, you will still be able to get technical support through Microsoft Knowledge Base articles and through other Web sites, such as TechRepublic. You can also request a custom support relationship from your Microsoft account representative.
If Windows 98 is meeting your needs and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, there is really no reason to upgrade to a newer version, assuming that your staff is capable of supporting Windows 98. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that much of the newer software will not run on Windows 98. For example, the next version of Microsoft office (Office 11) will run only on Windows 2000 and Windows XP.
If you do decide that upgrading to a newer version of Windows would be in your best interest, I recommend upgrading to Windows XP. It's much easier to transfer all of your files and settings to Windows XP than it is to transfer them to Windows 2000. In fact, there's a step-by-step guide for doing so located at this Windows XP deployment Web site. Furthermore, Windows XP is basically Windows 2000 Professional with a new interface, a few new features, and a lot of bug fixes. It's been my personal experience that Windows XP is much more reliable than Windows 2000. The biggest thing to keep in mind before upgrading is that your existing hardware and software may not be compatible with Windows XP. Check your system's compatibility before making the upgrade.
Helpful Web sites
As you can see, the product lifecycle policy can be a bit confusing. Fortunately, Microsoft has a couple of pages on its Web site that you might find helpful. One is Microsoft's Lifecycle Support FAQ. It describes the product lifecycle policy without all of the legal gibberish. Also see Microsoft's Product Support Web site, which lists all of the Microsoft products along with their lifecycle information.