It wasn’t a surprise that all free Microsoft support for Windows 98 (and Windows Me) was supposed to terminate on June 30 with the end of free security fixes, but instead of an orderly farewell party with a brief reprieve to July 11, it turned into a rout. Robert McMillan at PCWorld:
With support for its Windows 98 and Windows Millennium Edition operating systems about to expire, Microsoft has given up on the idea of patching a critical security vulnerability in the products, the company announced this week.
The flaw has to do with the way Windows Explorer handles the Component Object Model objects used by Windows programs. Attackers could take over a system by tricking users into visiting a Web site that would then connect them to a remote file server.
“This remote file server could then cause Windows Explorer to fail in a way that could allow code execution,” Microsoft said.
Microsoft had fixed the problem in the majority of its Windows products on April 11. At the time, it had promised to deliver a patch for Windows 98 and ME “as soon as possible.”
Microsoft’s Christopher Budd explains:
Specifically, after extensive investigation, we’ve found that it’s not feasible to make the extensive changes necessary to Windows Explorer on these older versions of Windows to eliminate the vulnerability.
This is because during the development of Windows 2000, we made significant enhancements to the underlying architecture of Windows Explorer. The Windows Explorer architecture on these older versions of Windows is much less robust than the more recent Windows architectures.
Due to these fundamental differences, these changes would require reengineering a significant amount of a critical core component of the operating system. After such a reengineering effort, there would be no assurance that applications designed to run on these platforms would continue to operate on the updated system.
We do strongly recommend that customers still using Microsoft Windows 98, Microsoft Windows 98 Second Edition (SE), and Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition (ME) protect those systems by placing them behind a perimeter firewall which filters traffic on TCP Port 139 which will block attacks attempting to exploit this vulnerability. This is discussed in the “Workarounds” section of the vulnerability.
The “Workarounds” section is in the official Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-015.
Jupiter Research’s Joe Wilcox offers a sensible assessment:
I don’t think Microsoft’s decision not to patch is designed to force Windows XP upgrades, as I’ve been repeatedly asked. But I do find the situation highly ironic. Microsoft had extended support for both products from June 30 to July 11, so there would be one last security patch–July 11 is a Security Tuesday–for Windows 98 and Me. So, it’s ironic that the two operating systems will end of life with one remaining critical flaw patched on newer Windows versions.
How serious is the situation? … Our data shows plenty of consumers and businesses still using Windows 98 and Me.
But his net is that Windows 98′s day has passed.