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3/7/2003
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Langa Letter: Microsoft's Adjusted 'Product Lifecycle' Plans

Fred Langa untangles Microsoft's plans to extend the life of Win98 while it schedules retirement for other Windows operating systems, too.

Late last year, Microsoft pulled the plug on a group of older products, including all versions of DOS, Windows 3.xx, NT 3.5x, and the seminal Windows 95--arguably the most important commercial operating system ever released (see "It's Curtains For Windows 95").

This cessation of support wasn't a surprise: Microsoft had revealed its comprehensive "Product Lifecycle Guidelines" back in 2001. The guidelines called for older products to be phased out fairly rapidly and for newer products gradually to ramp down through diminishing levels of support as time went on. The older a product was, the fewer support options would be available for it, until it reached what Microsoft called "end of life," when all official support would stop.

Microsoft originally had Windows 98 set for a fairly aggressive march toward end of life this year but got a lot of negative feedback. After all, Win98 remains the world's most popular operating system, and pulling the plug on it is no trivial matter. As a result, late last year Microsoft relaxed the schedule a bit, in effect, granting Win98 a very limited stay of execution. The schedule change affected other Microsoft products, too, so let's take a look at how things stand.

Support Levels
To understand what's going on, you need to know some of the general terminology that Microsoft uses to describe the different stages or "phases" in a product's support lifecycle:

  • Mainstream phase: This is what most people think of in terms of product support. It includes both free and paid live support, support for warranty claims, and online self-help support information. Perhaps most importantly, the software is fully maintained during this phase via freely downloadable hot fixes, patches, and updates.
  • Extended phase: Pay-per-incident live support and online self-help support information remain available, but free live support ends. Patches and updates will be made available for "business desktop software," but not for "consumer desktop software."
  • Nonsupport phase: No live support of any kind is available, no new patches or updates will be released, but online self-help support information is still available.
  • End of life: Just what it says; no further support of any kind.

For Microsoft's newer operating systems--Windows 2000 and XP--only three levels apply: mainstream, extended, and end of life. The nonsupport level is a bit of a fudge factor that Microsoft threw in to help manage the phase-out of support for Win98, NT4, and WinME, which arrived at different times and were aimed at different user bases. But even adding that extra level wasn't enough to handle all the permutations. Instead, support for Win98, NT4, and WinME is actually governed by a confusing list of rules, exceptions, and modifications. Let's try to sort it out:

Windows 98/98SE
Windows 98 (and 98SE) officially entered the "extended" product support phase in June 2002. But because of the enormous popularity of Win98 and the hybrid business/consumer nature of the operating system, Microsoft wisely ignored its own guidelines and has continued to provide no-charge incident support and extended hot-fix support since then. That will soon change: On June 30, 2003, Microsoft will begin the shutdown process for Win98 in earnest.

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