The insurance industry, perhaps more than any other, has made an art form out of using technology to the fullest–and the longest–squeezing every last drop of life out of even the moldiest hardware and software before finally succumbing to the inevitable upgrade.

Whether it be lumbering mainframes in carrier home offices or dust-encrusted green screens in agency operations, we are dedicated to continuing on with anything that continues to work, however slowly and inefficiently.

Truth be told, that is not necessarily a bad thing. While propeller heads like me see this trend as the frustrating penny-pinching of hopeless Luddites, an equally plausible case could be made that insurance as an industry wants to get the full value out of anything purchased before spending piles of cash to replace systems that took eons to get used to in the first place. There is much to be said for the notion that older technologies still get the job done.

Yet we are so attached to “what works” that the thought of giving it up (flawed as it may be) provokes anxiety. It’s almost as if we have to see an aging computer cough and gasp its last byte, and then explode before our eyes–or witness a software meltdown that destroys every bit of critical data we have–before we will open our wallets and endure the pain of separation, spending and re-training that comes with the installation of newer technologies.

All that brings me to the news that Microsoft has announced that as of this month, it will no longer provide technical support (including security updates) for Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Me.

Although the Windows 98 operating systems are somewhat outdated by today’s standards, they do not even approach the vintage of many of the mainframes that still exist in many carrier enterprises.

In addition, these OSs continue to be widely used. In fact, Windows 98 may be installed on more computers than all the other OSs combined, according to –an online repository of information on such matters.

Given that trend, it’s not much of a stretch to presume that Windows 98 machines still are operating in a lot of insurance enterprises, as well.

So, why is Microsoft scrapping its support for such a popular line of products? According to the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant, “Microsoft is retiring support for these products because they are outdated and can expose customers to security risks.”

The security argument holds water, according to Bruce Hill, vice president of development for Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Mr. Hillcomp, a computer systems integrator. “Windows 98 has so many holes in it–security viruses, spyware,” he comments. “There are certain things it just won’t be able to fix until you upgrade. Windows 98 workstations will be a liability for security.”

It would appear, then, that upgrading to Windows XP now (or the highly touted Windows Vista next year) will be necessary for those operations that still use the Windows 98 OSs. Hill concedes, however, that “a lot of companies will have conniptions because of the cost to upgrade.”

The good news, however, is that upgrades need not happen all at once, thus allowing firms to spread out the cost over time. “You may be able to upgrade your workstations in steps, having more critical users work on the newer OS,” says Hill.

If yours is an enterprise that can’t immediately dump and replace a host of Windows 98 machines, you also can be proactive by updating other security measures to make up for the OS’s shortcomings in that area.

The cost for updated security software (assuming it is compatible with your OS) will probably be far less than replacing multiple machines–and it’s also likely the same security applications still can be used when you are able to upgrade.

Does Microsoft’s slamming the lid on Windows 98 support signal a much-needed security upgrade, or is it just a move to get us to buy newer, more expensive products? The answer is probably a little of both.

The fact remains, however, that as time moves on, machines wear out and software advances far beyond its original versions.

“Industries nowadays should know that the turnover for computer technology is three years,” says Hill. Add to that the fact that fewer and fewer software makers will offer products that work with Windows 98, and it’s time to hand the venerable OS its walking papers.

The upgrade process will not be quick or easy for most in this industry, but its ultimate necessity is beyond question. Make the most of your Windows 98 workstations for now but plan to replace them as quickly as possible.