If you need a hotfix for Exchange Server 5.5 after December 31, 2003, you'll probably have to pay for it. The same goes for Outlook 98 hotfixes after January 16, 2004. A new Microsoft support policy indicates that beginning January 17, 2004, the only way to get a nonsecurity hotfix for Outlook 98 will be through a support contract.

A new timetable explains when Microsoft will phase out support for various versions of Outlook, Exchange, and other currently available products. In most cases, what Microsoft calls "mainstream" support will be obtainable during the first 5 years of a product's life. For 2 years after that, organizations can contract for "extended" support for business and development software, an option Microsoft doesn't offer for consumer and multimedia applications. You'll also be able to pay for individual support incidents for business or development programs instead of buying a support contract.

This new support lifecycle policy commits Microsoft to maintaining the Microsoft Knowledge Base and other online support information for at least 8 years after a product's initial release. In other words, online articles should be available for at least 1 year after the extended support period ends.

In an FAQ about the new policy, Microsoft explains that "mainstream" support consists of all options offered today for active products—both online support and support options that involve Microsoft technical professionals. The "extended" support period includes hotfixes to fix critical issues (if you have a contract for them—more on that below) and might also cover assistance billed at hourly rates or paid through an ongoing support contract.

Microsoft has already ended both mainstream and extended support for Outlook 97. Only online self-help support is available. For support purposes, Outlook 98 is grouped with Office 97. Microsoft will continue to offer assisted support for Outlook 98 and Office 97 (minus Outlook 97) through January 16, 2004, including downloads for security problems but no new hotfixes. After that, online self-help will be available for at least 1 additional year.

For Outlook 2000, Microsoft will offer mainstream support through June 30, 2004, and extended support for 2 years after that. In addition, from July 1, 2004, through June 30, 2005, you'll still be able to file no-charge and paid personal incidents with Microsoft support. The policy for Outlook 2002 is similar—mainstream support through June 30, 2006; personal support incidents through June 30, 2007; and extended support through June 30, 2008.

Mainstream support for Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 5.0 will end December 31, 2003—just 14 months from now. Extended support will be available for 2 years after that, through 2005. For Exchange 2000, mainstream support will last through 2005 and extended support through 2007.

The product lifecycle chart also shows that as of June 30, 2003, Microsoft will consider Exchange 4.0—both server and client—and Microsoft Mail obsolete and provide no further support of any kind.

One change expands service pack coverage. Microsoft says that during a product's 5-year mainstream period, it will now provide support for both the current service pack and the preceding service pack. This applies to current retail and volume-purchase products and future releases.

Hotfixes are perhaps the biggest potential source of confusion in the new policy. The 5-year mainstream support period apparently is similar to the current procedure: Microsoft provides a hotfix at no charge when you file a support incident that deals strictly with the issue that the patch is supposed to fix. The extended policy is less clear. The Web page announcing the new support policy says that to receive hotfixes during the extended support period, you must have either a normal support contract with hotfix support included or "an extended hotfix support agreement which provides minimal account management to allow for hotfix requests." The policy states that the deadline for buying an extended hotfix contract is 90 days after the end of mainstream support. I couldn't obtain any clarification from Microsoft about what might happen if a company discovers that it needs a hotfix after that 90-day window for buying an extended hotfix contract.

The relationship between the Microsoft Knowledge Base and hotfixes during the extended support period is also unclear. What happens if a company finds an article in the Knowledge Base that resolves a problem, but that resolution involves a hotfix described in the article? On one hand, Microsoft says that online support resources are available and free. On the other, the new policy requires an extended support contract if you need to obtain a hotfix. I asked Microsoft whether hotfixes detailed in the Knowledge Base will be available without a hotfix support contract but didn't get a clear answer.

Speaking of hotfixes, in "Hotfixes No Substitute for Public Updates," October 1, 2002, I criticized Microsoft for making a key patch for Outlook 2002 Service Pack 2 (SP2) available only as a hotfix, forcing end users to contact Microsoft Product Support Services (PSS) to obtain it. That fix is still available only from PSS, but Microsoft has just made public another popular tool that formerly required a call to PSS. The utility is pst2gb.exe, which truncates oversized personal folders (.pst) files to make them operational again.

Product Support Lifecycle
http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=fh;en-us;lifecycle

Product Lifecycle Dates - Server Product Family
http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=fh;en-us;lifesrvr

Exchange 2000 Tool: PST2GB
http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/release.asp?releaseid=44353&area=search&ordinal=21