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Microsoft slows to support customers' pace

The software giant's decision to extend product support to 10 years reflects customers using software longer and Microsoft taking more time to develop new products.

For Microsoft's customers, the latest isn't always the greatest. The software maker's decision to extend support for many of its products reflects a new reality: Customers are increasingly reluctant to update major software components every few years just to keep up with Microsoft's shipment schedules.

"By (Microsoft) extending support, we don't have to upgrade our applications as rapidly. We're not on Microsoft's treadmill," said Tim Kelly, technology director at TSYS, a large credit card transaction processor in Columbus, Ga.


What's new:
Microsoft is facing up to a new world order, one in which users don't order new versions of software as fast as the company releases them.

Bottom line:
Microsoft's decision to extend support for its software reflects its shift to bigger, less frequent updates. It also takes into account the longer corporate life cycle of IT products.

More stories on support

Microsoft said last week it will prolong support policies for all business and developer products from the current seven years to 10 years, effective Tuesday. The new policy guarantees a minimum of five years of "mainstream" support, the basic level of assistance that includes free incident support and "hot fix" patches released to remedy critical problems.

Mainstream support is extended if Microsoft allows more than five years to lapse between major product releases, so that support is offered for at least two years after a next-generation product is released. Thus, Windows XP would be supported for two years after its successor, Longhorn, is released.

Once the mainstream support phase concludes, Microsoft will provide another five years of "extended" support, a reduced level that includes options for paid hot fixes and hourly support services.

The support extension also mirrors the rising expectations among customers that Microsoft should stand by older products still in wide use. Microsoft reversed itself earlier this year on a widely criticized plan to end support for the Windows 98 operating system, which many businesses continue to use.

The software giant has faced similar complaints from customers running Windows NT 4.0, which is still in wide use, particularly among businesses in Europe.

"It's definitely a reflection of the fact some people can't move that quickly on new software, and some enterprises want to standardize on an operating system and skip (operating-system editions) every once in a while," said Mike Silver, an analyst at research firm Gartner.

"Ten years is actually a much better life cycle in terms of how customers are using products today."
--Peter Houston, Microsoft

Microsoft said it recognizes the problem. "Seven years, we find, is on the short side as people try to run their systems longer and longer," said Peter Houston, senior director of servicing strategy for Microsoft's Windows sustained engineering division. "Ten years is actually a much better life cycle in terms of how customers are using products today."

The extended support plan comes as a reassurance to Christian LaForte, director of research and development with Dakis, a software maker based in Montreal. The company, which makes software to help Web customers make buying decisions, chose to buy Microsoft's SQL Server database over the open-source MySQL database several months ago.

"This just confirms that we made the right decision. We chose SQL Server because we were pleased with Microsoft's service and support (for Windows). We are a small software company...and we don't want to do support ourselves," LaForte said.

Longhorn and the long range
Concerns about product lifecycles have been amplified in recent months as Longhorn, the high-stakes successor to current versions of Windows, has been subject to repeated cutbacks and delays.

Both LaForte and Kelly said their companies are investigating Longhorn for their next-generation products. "Longhorn has a bearing on our future plans. We're tracking it closely," Kelly said.

Microsoft's mainstream support would have ended for the current Windows XP operating system in 2006 under previous policies, said Paul DeGroot, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft. Microsoft has set a tentative 2006 release date for the client version of Longhorn. The server counterpart is expected in 2007.

"Maybe Longhorn (client) will ship before then, maybe it won't," DeGroot said. "If it doesn't, that means Microsoft (wouldn't have had) a desktop OS that's in the mainstream support cycle, which is a very tough position to put customers in."

"You could see they were going to have to do something to the support policy as Longhorn slips," Gartner's Silver said. "A new support cycle that goes longer and has some caveats (for product delays) gives companies more of the predictability they're looking for."

Microsoft's new policy also extents support for services packs, the major collections of patches and updates Microsoft periodically releases for major applications. Service packs will now be supported for up to two years for major releases, as opposed to previous policies that ended support as soon as six months.

"Rolling out a service pack in a larger organization is not a trivial exercise. Having two years of support gives IT people more time to plan and test."
--Paul DeGroot, analyst
DeGroot said the change is needed as Microsoft shifts its approach to service packs, releasing fewer and bigger ones. The approach is reflected in the upcoming Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, which will include so many new tools that some consider it close to a new version of the operating system.

"Rolling out a service pack in a larger organization is not a trivial exercise," he said. "Having two years of support gives IT people more time to plan and test and make sure the latest service pack is indeed fully baked before they deploy it."

For companies that resell Microsoft's products as part of packaged applications, the extended service pack support is key. "When we are working with financial institutions, they vet all aspects of your package. They want to know what level service pack you have installed. And what might be acceptable in the U.S. is not acceptable in Europe, for instance," said TSYS' Kelly.

The Windows NT problem
One group of customers that won't find much comfort in Microsoft's support plan extension are those companies using the Windows NT 4.0 operating system. The new policy excludes products currently out of mainstream support, which means the significant population of Windows NT 4.0 users still face a support expiration at the end of this year.

Microsoft's Houston said security patches are one of the biggest challenges in product support, and it's increasingly difficult to re-engineer older products such as NT to thwart new threats.

"It's just not possible to secure (NT) to the same extent as current products," Houston said. "We're not telling people to stop using NT, but they need to understand what we can do and what we can't. We don't want to give people a false sense of security."

The security issue has some merit, but it's unlikely to make NT customers feel any better, said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with research firm RedMonk.

"There is an argument Microsoft can justifiably make that (Windows NT) is old enough that it's difficult to protect," he said. "At the end of the day, customers are just going to care about the fact they have thousands of NT machines that are on their own. People are going to bring up IBM, which almost to a fault supports things way beyond their useful lifespan."

Silver said that in a recent Garner survey covering 1.4 million corporate desktops, Windows NT still had significant penetration at numerous companies, none of whom are likely to appreciate that those desktops will soon be supported only if they sign expensive contracts.

"I think people are going to be pretty upset when a worm comes out and Microsoft says, 'We can't fix this for you, but we can for people paying us $100,000 or $200,000 a year for service contracts,'" he said.

Microsoft executives say the majority of customers still on Windows NT 4.0 are planning a transition to newer versions of Windows. "It's a pretty small percentage of customers on NT 4.0, less than 20 percent. But the vast majority of customers will move by the end of this year," Bob Muglia, the Microsoft executive in charge of Windows server development, told CNET

Phasing out NT support is likely to fuel perceptions, O'Grady said, that Microsoft uses support policies partly to nudge customers into upgrading their software, which Microsoft denies.

"Sometimes people think we use support policies to motivate customers to upgrade, but that absolutely is not the case," Houston said. "Support policies are determined by customer needs. When we introduce new products, it's up to us to provide the value incentive for customers to upgrade. But given the amount of security threats that emerge, older products simply become impossible to support at some point."

O'Grady said customer support has become an important avenue, however, for Microsoft to distinguish itself from products based on the open-source Linux operating system.

"That's the biggest knock against Linux, the lack of support," he said. "Lengthening support policies is part of Microsoft's attempting to extend the value they perceive in their approach."

Support has become a key selling point for Microsoft as it competes with Linux and open-source software in general, said Tom Rizzo, Microsoft's director of product management for SQL Server. He said customers like to know whom to turn to when there's a problem. "Support is a big concern for customers as well," he said. "We're one neck to choke. On open-source, I don't know."