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Well, well, well, it’s not as if I didn’t see this coming. If you and your customers aren’t using Windows XP SP2 and Internet Explorer 6 on your desktop, don’t expect Microsoft to keep you safe from the inevitable security hole.

Microsoft had told developers earlier this year that it would port at least some of the IE 6 fixes for Windows 2000 in the Service Pack 5 update. It also has told some partners that it was “considering strongly” making IE-specific SP2 fixes available for Windows NT, Windows 98, Windows 98 SE and Windows ME.

Forget about it. If you or your customers are running Server 2003 as a desktop—and I know of at least one company that does—you’ll see at least some of the bigger, better security patches in SP1, but otherwise, forget about it. It’s not going to happen.

Therefore, even though Windows 98, 98 SE and ME were, in theory, going to be supported until June 30, 2006, and W2K was getting support until June 30, 2005, we now know better.

What about IE 6 for those older operating systems? Nope, Microsoft has already said that’s not going to happen.

Click here to read more about Microsoft’s change in plans.

So it is that Microsoft, by refusing to secure almost half of its installed desktop base, is trying to force your customers to upgrade to XP. I guess since Microsoft can no longer offer the carrot of Longhorn, it’s now using the whip of poor security.

To be exact, according to IDC, XP Pro has 26.1 percent of the desktop market, with XP Home, which is almost never found in businesses, with 24.7 percent. The rest of the 49.2 percent of the Windows desktop is broken out as W2K Pro with 17.5 percent; Windows 98 with 14.9 percent; ME with 6.5 percent; Windows 95 with 5.4 percent; and NT Workstation with 4.9 percent.

Of course, as I’ve said before, not all offices can upgrade to XP SP2 because of program incompatibilities.

So, what can you do? Well, ideally, of course, you want to sell your customers new machines with new operating systems. Chances are, if your client base is still running W2K or older, there’s no way they can upgrade their systems to XP.

You could, of course, upgrade them to Linux desktops. Unlike the XP resource hog, most desktop Linuxes, such as Xandros or Red Hat Enterprise Desktop, will run happily on W2K-capable machines.

Of course, moving to Linux would involve a major migration effort.

But so what?

Microsoft isn’t offering our customers any choice except to make a major migration or face one security problem after another.

IDC’s numbers suggest to me that more than half of our customers are going to have to upgrade now if they want to keep their systems relatively safe. Why not make them even safer by upgrading them to an operating system that’s not successfully cracked every other month?

Or you could simply replace Internet Explorer with another browser. Microsoft’s reason for not releasing IE 6 for other versions of Windows is that the Web browser is an integral part of Windows.

What nonsense! It’s a Web browser, and it’s no more vital to the operating system than the paint job is on the engine of my Toyota MR2.

I’ve found Firefox to be an easy upgrade from IE. I use it myself on all of my Windows boxes, since, even after XP SP2, IE isn’t safe.

But I’m sorry to report that while the latest beta of Firefox works well, upgrading existing Firefox installations is far too much trouble for most IT staffs.

If the Mozilla folks get their upgrade act together, though, moving to Firefox might prove the easiest way to keep older Windows users happy for minimal expense.

Realistically, I know most of your customers are going to want to stick with the devil, ah, operating-system company, that they know.

With that in mind, while I think you should certainly keep open the Linux option—or for that matter the Mac option—it’s time to start talking to your hardware partners to see if you can get volume discounts on XP-capable systems.

Your customers may not like it one darn bit. In fact, I’m sure many of them will have a hissy fit when they discover that their IT budget has just been blown up. But the bottom line is that Microsoft is forcing its enormous installed base of older systems to upgrade.

It’s up to you as their IT business partner to make the process as painless as possible, even if Microsoft isn’t. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late ’80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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