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Microsoft ends free support for Office 97

In a move partly aimed at prodding people to upgrade their software, the company ends its free support on its most popular business software.

In another move at least partly aimed at prodding people to upgrading their software, Microsoft has ended its free support for customers of its most popular business software product.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant on Friday began charging for person-to-person troubleshooting advice regarding Office 97. People wishing to pay the fee may call Microsoft or submit a personal service request on Microsoft's support site. Or they can scan Microsoft's online support library and try to find answers themselves for free.

The move is part of the company's year-old policy to provide free support exclusively for the current version and the immediately preceding version of its software. For the company's office productivity suite, that means Microsoft will provide free support for Office XP, which debuted last week, and its predecessor, Office 2000.

CIBC World Markets analyst Melissa Eisenstat said the new fees may not go over well with Office 97 customers, who may now can pay Microsoft $35 per service request for phone assistance, pay $14.95 for online assistance from third-party support company ePeople or upgrade to Office XP.

"They've got customers by the short hairs," Eisenstat said.

The company also axed free support for Visio 5.0, Frontpage 98 and Outlook 98 as of last Friday. Microsoft will continue to provide free phone support for Office 98, a Mac-only version of the software, as well as the current Mac version, Office 2001.

Analysts have said Microsoft is under significant financial pressure to convince Office customers to upgraded to the XP version. Office and other desktop applications accounted for 37 percent of Microsoft's $6.46 billion in revenue in the most recent quarter, and the company needs a steady cash influx as it prepares to launch its new Windows XP operating systems and the Xbox video game console.

Yet Office customers have been reluctant to upgrade in the past. Approximately 55 percent of the world's 120 million licensed Office customers still have the 97 version, according to Microsoft. Approximately 5 percent have Office 95, which no longer comes with free personal assistance, and the remaining 40 percent have Office 2000.

Microsoft outlined a new licensing program last month that forced the majority of its business customers to either upgrade to Office XP before Oct. 1 or pay a heftier purchase price later. In the process, Microsoft raised costs anywhere from 33 percent to 107 percent for the majority of customers, according to Gartner.

It also eliminated the most popular licensing plan for upgrading to new versions of its software, replacing it with a new program called Software Assurance. The new program guarantees customers access to the latest versions of Microsoft's business software, including Office and Windows.

Microsoft support managers could not be reached to comment on the fee structure, but a company representative sent an e-mail to CNET, calling the new structure a "positive step to enable customers to plan their use of Microsoft products and their migration to new product versions."

The Microsoft Product Support Lifecycle site also hailed the policy for helping people make a "graceful" transition to updated versions of the popular suite of Office software.

"Periodically, Microsoft will expire support for products which have recorded a low or zero support demand for a significant period of time, allowing you to enjoy our full focus on your current products," the site says. "When a product does reach the end of it's lifecycle, Microsoft is committed to making your transition a graceful one."