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Microsoft extends a helping hand

The software giant issues new policies that guarantee customers product support on Microsoft products for at least five years.

Microsoft on Tuesday published for the first time how long the company plans to offer customers software product support.

The new policy means Microsoft customers now have clear guidelines by which they can evaluate how long the software giant will support its products. As part of the new support policy, Microsoft greatly extended how long it would support some products, long due for retirement.

Microsoft business and software development products will be supported for five years under the plan. Extended support, which costs companies extra, will be available for an additional two years.

The five-year period also applies to consumer products and multimedia software. Online, self-help support will be available for all products for at least eight years.

"We really wanted to give customers information when they were buying our products or making deploying decisions (about) just how long support would be available to them," said Andy Erlandson, a product director in Microsoft's Product Support Services division.

Analysts generally praised the announcement, which they also said was too long coming.

"People were starting to get worried, because the likely release dates that were starting to come out for some new products made it look like there might be some problems of people having to upgrade almost immediately to get support," said Paul DeGroot of Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm that follows the software giant. The overhauled support policy "does provide a fair amount of predictability," he said.

Microsoft issued the policy changes and extended support on some products "because of customer pressure," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver. "Some of this information was not published before, so enterprises could not plan that well how long to hold on to a product."

Under Microsoft's older policy, the company only needed to give customers six months' notice before dropping support for a product.

"This just wasn't enough notice," Silver said. "Now customers can plan on how long they can use a technology, plan projects and work out their budgeting."

The change also prevents companies from moving to a new technology, only to have Microsoft pull support a short time later.

For Microsoft the biggest change was developing a different metric for providing information on product support. Under the older policy, Microsoft based that information on the software version. But given how release dates of new products could slip, poor communication made it more difficult for businesses to plan when to retire existing software or when to switch to newer versions.

"Our old school of thought was to make our support life cycles based on versions, but it became clear that didn't work with many of our customers," Erlandson said. "So one of the big changes we made was to move to dates."

Hush-hush changes
Microsoft had been very quiet about the policy change, trying to contain the information until it could notify customers. The company apparently wanted to take a different tack, introducing the changes differently than it did with the revamp of its volume-licensing program.

Last week, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer acknowledged that the company could have done a better job moving to the new licensing plan, which Gartner estimated would raise customer rates 33 percent to 107 percent.

Microsoft's mishandling of the program, including too short a time for customers to transition from the old one, led to massive defections. As many as two-thirds of customers refused to sign up for the program, forgoing cheaper upgrades and choosing to pay full price for the software at a later time. Many customers also complained they felt forced into adopting the new licensing program.

"I think Microsoft learned some lessons from licensing," DeGroot said. "A lot of customers felt they were under the gun to upgrade under the new licensing plan. Microsoft couldn?t afford to have customers feel under the gun about support as well. I think this would have been the straw that broke the camel's back for some customers."

Still, the move to the new licensing program raised an important issue about product lifecycles. Microsoft found many customers continued to use products well beyond the period the company supported them. The majority of businesses using Office, for example, kept the product in service for at least four years or more, according to Gartner.

Some planned product lifecycles, in fact, conflicted with customer use. Microsoft had planned to drop Windows 2000 mainstream support in March of next year. But the majority of businesses are in the process of installing Windows 2000 this year. Gartner predicts that more than 40 percent of PCs sold to businesses this year would have Windows 2000 installed on them versus about 16 percent for Windows XP.

"A year and a half ago, when they announced the lifecycle for the client OS, the period was just too short," Silver said. "According to their previous lifecycle, Windows 2000 would be hard to get on new PCs in just about six months. That was going to be very difficult for enterprises deploying it to keep deploying it."

Extending support
Under the revised plan, Microsoft will continue mainstream support for Windows 2000 through March 2005 and extended options through March 2007.

But Microsoft will soon end support for many other products the company considers to be older software. Mainstream Office 97 support ended Aug. 31 and the extended period ended Feb. 28, 2002. Microsoft will stopping offering standard support for Office 2000 in June 2004 and the extended option two years later.

By contrast, Microsoft will offer Office XP mainstream support through June 2006 and extended support for two additional years. In separation of consumer and business products, Windows XP has different end-of-support dates. Microsoft plans to end all normal Windows XP Home support on Dec. 31, 2006. Extended support will be available for an additional two years for Windows XP Professional.

One of the most important aspects of the mainstream support period is the release of bug fixes used to correct product problems. Businesses, in particular, rely on these updates to keep software running smoothly. Microsoft will offer security fixes through the extended support period, or up to seven years from the time a business product is released.

Microsoft charges companies for hot fixes issued after mainstream support ends, which in the case of Windows NT 4 Server is Dec. 31. But as part of the new program, Microsoft will issue those fixes for free through the end of 2003. Microsoft discontinued Windows NT 4 years ago.

The new policy does not affect products for which Microsoft already has dropped support, such as Windows 95. PC makers stopped selling Windows 95 on Dec. 31, 2000.

"We're not going back and doing hot fixes for Windows 95," Erlandson said. "We're not going to as a result of this change in policy."