The research firm IDC estimates that of the roughly 514 million paid-for copies of Windows on desktops and laptops worldwide at the end of 2004, almost 21 percent were the aging Win 95, 98 and Millennium Edition releases.

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A program can’t ever really die, but it can get old.

Very old.

This is a paradox millions of computer users are living with. Almost four years after the release of Windows XP and Mac OS X, they boot their machines into more senior versions of Windows or the Mac OS.

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Those operating systems still fire up in the morning as they always did. But they show their age in other ways — newer programs and gadgets can’t or won’t coexist with them.

The research firm IDC estimates that of the roughly 514 million paid-for copies of Windows on desktops and laptops worldwide at the end of 2004, almost 21 percent were the aging Win 95, 98 and Millennium Edition releases.

Among the 19 million Mac OS desktop and laptop installations IDC surveyed, about half were running releases predating Mac OS X.

If your machine is among that contingent and you find it performs its assigned tasks properly, there’s no problem. For you, the software is old but not obsolete.

But if you’re still using your machine for the tasks it was designed for, you are likely in a small minority. Home computing these days has little in common with five years ago, and not all of these changes leave room for older systems.

Here are how the past few consumer releases of Windows and the Mac OS compare viability:

Windows 95:

This nearly decade-old operating system is swimming with several anchors around its neck, the heaviest of them being its lack of USB support. That rules out using the vast bulk of devices — printers, digital cameras, MP3 players, handheld organizers — made in the past few years.

Software support for Windows 95 is vanishing, too. Microsoft last released a Windows 95 version of its Internet Explorer browser five years ago; America Online’s software last supported it in 2001. Nor can you run the current editions of Intuit’s Quicken and Microsoft Money in Windows 95.

Windows 98:

This version has weathered the years better than Windows 95. For one thing, USB does work in Windows 98, although not perfectly (for instance, most of Creative’s MP3 players, Epson’s printer/scanner combos and many Wi-Fi adapters need newer Windows releases).

For another, a lot of software still runs on Windows 98. Among the 20 top-selling Windows programs in December, as compiled by the research firm NPD Group, 15 are Windows 98-compatible.

Media software is a big exception: If you want to make MP3 copies of your CDs, Win 98 offers few options.

Windows 98 Second Edition and Millennium Edition:

Despite the chorus of yawns greeting it at its summer 1999 introduction, Windows 98 SE turns out to be a fairly significant update seven years later; it’s the oldest Windows release I would consider halfway viable.

Windows ME, shipped only a year later, offers almost the same compatibility.

These releases’ USB support is good enough to accept almost all the peripherals you might plug into a new Windows XP machine.

Windows 98 SE and ME also remain the minimum system for many popular applications, such as Microsoft’s Money and RealNetworks’ RealPlayer. They can’t, however, run some of the best-known media software, including Apple’s iTunes, Napster, Roxio Easy CD and DVD Creator 7 and Adobe Photoshop Elements 3. You might not think word processing demands the latest system software, but Microsoft Office 2003 won’t run on these systems, either.

Windows 2000:

The immediate ancestor of Windows XP, used by few home users, is barely a year older than Win XP. Yet Microsoft is backing away from it anyway. The latest versions of its flagship Web and media programs — the pop-up-blocking Internet Explorer 6 and the cleaner, more capable Windows Media Player 10 — both require XP.

With little or no built-in support for such wireless standards as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, Windows 2000 is also far behind XP in the networking department.

On the Mac side, there have been far more system updates in recent years — the downside of that being a quick sunset for older releases. This has continued past the onset of Mac OS X — the 3 ½-year-old Mac OS X 10.1 is now as far behind the times as Win 98 SE.

Mac OS 8 and 8.5:

These 1997 and 1998 releases are as dead as Windows 95, thanks to their own lack of USB support — as well as an even more complete abandonment by software developers. Not a single modern, compatible browser is available for these systems. Multimedia software is also hard to find.

Mac OS 8.6-9.2:

These releases are slightly better in terms of software support — there still aren’t any good browsers, but you can run an old version of iTunes (which doesn’t connect to the iTunes Music Store or recent iPod models). And you can plug in USB devices.

Mac OS X 10.0 and 10.1:

The first two releases of Mac OS X have been so badly outclassed by succeeding releases that there is no good reason to run them.

If your system shows up on this list, that’s not a death sentence. First, you can simply install the latest system software. A machine that runs Windows 2000 or any Mac OS X version should handle Windows XP or Panther — as long as you up its memory to 512 megabytes.

Second, you can look past Microsoft or Apple for your upgrades. Using Windows 98, ME or 2000? Ditch Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, essentially abandoned on pre-XP versions, for the free Firefox browser.

The same recommendation applies in Jaguar; the version of Safari in that release doesn’t display some sites properly. Microsoft Office 2003 may not tolerate Windows 98 SE, but Corel’s WordPerfect Office 12 and the free OpenOffice will.