Windows 2000's Demise: Greatly Exaggerated?

Rodney Upton manages some 4000 PCs for the three-campus Ottawa Hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. These computers run on everything from Windows 95 to XP, but Upton estimates that about 50 percent boot Windows 2000.

This isn't unusual. Windows 2000 is still the most popular operating system for business PCs, even three years after the introduction of Windows XP, according to a new report by AssetMetrix Research Labs.

Ironically, Microsoft is about to end mainstream support for this popular OS. But Windows 2000 users shouldn't panic: The news is nowhere near as bad as it sounds.

2000 Maniacs

According to AssetMetrix's "Analysis of Windows 2000 Popularity in 2005," 48 percent of business PCs still run Windows 2000; only 37 percent run XP. XP is gaining: 18 months ago it owned a paltry 7 percent of the business PC market. But most of the gain since then has come at the expense of Windows 95, 98, and NT; Windows 2000 lost only 5 percentage points, the study found.

Despite Windows 2000's widespread user base, Microsoft will cease its Mainstream Support at the end of this month, moving it to Extended Support status as of July 1. According to Microsoft, products receive Mainstream Support for either five years after the product has become generally available or two years after a successor product has been released--whichever is longer. The Extended Support phase lasts for five years after the end of Mainstream Support, the company says.

The move to Extended Support isn't as drastic as it sounds. Redmond will continue releasing free security patches, and your Windows 2000 PC will continue to download and install them automatically. Technical support will still be available; it will cost money, but no more than it does now. The current rate is $35 per incident, though most companies that are using Windows 2000 have long-term support contracts.

What will change? You'll need a special support contract to receive updates that aren't security-related. And there will be no new features. AssetMetrix Managing Director Steven O'Halloran, the primary author of the report, doesn't see these as big problems. "You can still call Microsoft and get help. The price and quality of support won't change," he predicts.

Microsoft refused our request for an interview, but did send along a statement by e-mail, explaining the reasons behind the transition.

"The Microsoft Support Lifecycle consists of a standard set of policies designed to provide clear, consistent, and predictable product support timelines and support availability options to allow Microsoft customers and partners to better plan and manage their investments in and use of Microsoft products," the statement says.

The App's the Thing

According to AssetMetrix, the larger an office, the more likely it's still using Windows 2000. XP already dominates organizations with 20 to 250 PCs, where it has achieved over 50 percent of the installations. But in companies with more than 2500 PCs, XP didn't even start gaining significant ground until last fall. One reason is that large companies have complex support infrastructures that are slow to change. Another is that many of them have maintained special licenses from Microsoft that allow them to legally downgrade new PCs to an older OS. This involves buying PCs with XP, wiping the drive, and installing Windows 2000.

Why would a company do such a thing? Application compatibility. Custom applications created for a particular company and vertical applications created for a specific industry don't get the sort of regular upgrades typical with popular programs--and there's no guarantee that the current versions will work with XP.

"Vertical apps are what's going to drive us," says Ottawa Hospital's Upton. Medical applications certified to work only with Windows 2000 force Upton to "unfortunately" downgrade some of the 500 or so new PCs Ottawa Hospital buys a year. "Our own IS people have to take a lot of time to certify an app with a new OS...At some point the vendor will say they only support XP...and then you start moving forward."

Older machines are another issue. AssetMetrix's O'Halloran blames the 2002 recession for creating "an interesting retention bubble. PC sales dropped for the first time." Without money for new hardware, companies stick to the old operating system. "Why spend the money if I've got a Windows 2000 box running 2000 just fine?" Upton reasons.

And Windows 2000 does run fine. "Microsoft batted it right out of the ballpark," O'Halloran points out. "It was a fantastic combination of 98 user and NT administrator."

How much longer will Windows 2000 dominate the corporate market? According to O'Halloran, "When we analyze the next quarter's data, we'll probably see the change to XP."

But Ottawa Hospital's Upton has more modest goals. "What I really want is to get rid of Windows 95." For those supporting thousands of workers, the fewer operating systems, the better. But Upton can hope. "We may end up being pretty much an XP environment someday, and then Longhorn will come out."

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