In a bid to give customers a clearer understanding of product support, Microsoft announced yesterday that it's giving all its products a consistent and predictable support roadmap. Originally, the company published a set of support guidelines for Windows products only but developed the more comprehensive set of support policies after receiving customer feedback. Under the new plan, business and development software and most consumer, multimedia, and hardware products will receive support for at least 5 years from the date of the product's general availability. Consumer products that release a new version each year--such as Microsoft Money or Microsoft Encarta--now include at least 3 years of support. And most Microsoft products now include at least 8 years of online self-support.

"In responding to what we heard from customers, Microsoft worked closely with customers, business and industry partners, leading analysts, and research firms to determine what a clear and consistent support lifecycle policy would look like," said Lori Moore, corporate vice president for Microsoft Product Support Services. "The policy takes effect \[October 15\] and applies to most products currently available via retail purchase or volume licensing and future release products."

In addition to so-called mainstream support--all the support options and programs that customers receive today, including no-charge incident support, paid incident support, and warranty claim support--Microsoft is also offering extended support options for corporate customers. After a product's general availability (from 5 to 7 years, depending on the product), customers can pay for extended incident support and advisory services. And online self-support, including Windows Update, will be available for at least 1 year after the extended support period ends.

Under the new terms, Microsoft will declare "End of Life" for Windows NT 3.5x, Windows 3.x, Windows 95, and all MS-DOS versions on December 31, 2002, which means that those products will no longer be eligible for any form of support, including online self-help. These changes are effective worldwide, the company says, except where local laws and market conditions dictate otherwise.