Last week, Microsoft announced that it will standardize the support lifetime for all its products, a decision that should please customers. Previously, the company had standardized the support lifetime only for its Windows OS products, but the new plan extends to all Microsoft products and lengthens the amount of time the company will support many Windows versions. The plan applies to customers worldwide, not just in the United States.

Microsoft Corporate Vice President for Product Support Services (PSS) Lori Moore says that the decision to standardize the product support lifetime was a direct result of customer feedback. Now, she says, corporate customers, especially, will have a clearer understanding of when to expect new product releases and product support retirements. "Providing a roadmap and a policy based on years, rather than versions, can help enable best practices in planning and budgeting," she noted.

With Microsoft's new product support plan, business and development software programs, such as Windows, Microsoft Office, and Visual Studio .NET, now include 5 years of mainstream support—that is, no-charge incident support, paid incident support, support charged on an hourly basis, warranty claims support, and hotfix support—measured from the date of the product's general availability. After 5 years, the product enters a 2-year extended support phase, which includes assisted support charged on an hourly basis and security hotfix support. To receive nonsecurity hotfix support, customers must purchase an extended hotfix-support contract within the first 90 days of a product's extended support phase. Once this phase begins, Microsoft won't provide warranty support or accept requests for design changes or new features. At the conclusion of the extended support phase, the product enters an online self-help support phase, in which customers will continue to have access to Knowledge Base articles, FAQs, troubleshooting tools, and other online resources on Microsoft's Web site. This phase will last 1 year or more, depending on the product. During the online self-help support phase, Microsoft won't provide any direct customer support for the product, except in situations in which support is required by law or when the company offers assisted support and hotfix support for certain core products. Also, some of Microsoft's strategic partners might offer support for certain products after the extended support phase ends.

Support for consumer products, hardware devices, and multimedia software is similar to the corporate support program, except that Microsoft won't provide an extended support phase for these products. Instead, these products now include a 5-year mainstream support phase, followed by an online self-help support phase, which will last at least 3 years. In both the business and development and consumer/hardware/multimedia software support scenarios, Microsoft now guarantees at least 8 years of support.

Microsoft has also changed its service pack policies. In the past, the company supported only the most current service pack release for a given product. Now, Microsoft will support the two most recent versions. However, this support is available only during the mainstream support phase and applies only to products that you've purchased or licensed on or after October 15, 2002. Other products will continue to receive support for only the most current service pack.

Support for security fixes and other hotfixes are another matter. Microsoft says that the company is now covering, at no additional cost, business and development product security fixes and hotfixes for 7 years, which takes these products through the mainstream and extended support phases. Microsoft now covers consumer product security fixes and other hotfixes for just 5 years.

The new support guidelines cover only recent products. As a result, Microsoft will continue to cover many of the company's older products by different support timelines. For details on individual product version support lifetimes, visit the Microsoft Web site at http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=fh;en-us;complifeport .

The most interesting aspect of the new support policy is how it changes the length of support for Windows XP and Windows 2000. According to the previous Windows Desktop Product Life-Cycle Guidelines that the company published in February 2001, Microsoft would license Windows versions for 3 years, provide assisted support for 4 years, and permit volume license customers to downgrade licenses (say, from XP Professional to Win2K Professional) for 5 or more years. Under the new terms, license availability extends to 4 years, and downgrade rights and assisted support for these products increase to 7 or more years. These changes lengthen Microsoft's OS release cycle from the previous 2-to-3-year cycle to a 4-year cycle, which is excellent news for businesses, few of which were in tune with Microsoft's previous OS release schedule.

For corporations with legacy Windows versions, however, time is running out. Microsoft will officially End-Of-Life (EOL) Windows NT 3.5, Windows 95, and Windows 3.x at the end of 2002. Windows 98, Win98 Second Edition (Win98SE), and NT 4.0, which are currently in the extended support phase, will enter a nonsupported phase after June 30, 2003 and will be EOL'd on June 30, 2004. But Win2K users have a long period of support ahead. The product is currently in its mainstream support phase and won't enter the extended support phase until March 31, 2005. Two years later, Win2K will enter its nonsupported phase, and will be EOL'd on March 31, 2008. XP Pro's milestones are about 18 months later than the respective Win2K dates: XP Pro will enter the extended support phase on December 31, 2006, the nonsupport phase on December 31, 2008, and the EOL phase on December 31, 2009.

I've stated in the past that consumer demand for yearly Windows updates would force Microsoft to ship an interim Windows version between XP and the next Windows version (code-named Longhorn), currently due in 2005. Now I'm not so sure. These support timelines give credence to Microsoft's claim that it won't release a new Windows version until Longhorn. And if that claim turns out to be true, this new timeline also demonstrates that the company is serious about improving the security of its products before it introduces any exciting new functionality. In essence, we might be seeing the fruition of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative. And I think I can speak for most of the company's corporate accounts when I say that such a change is most welcome.