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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.
Yes, it's confusing. And Microsoft's weasel wording ("...support that may be charged.... and can include...") indicates to me that Microsoft itself isn't sure how this will play out. (There are other indications of Microsoft's own confusion on this subject--we'll get to them in a moment.)

But let's see what the current plans are for Windows 2000 and XP support.

Windows 2000
Windows 2000 is the first Microsoft operating system to fall completely within the new product life-cycle guidelines. Because it's a business product, it gets the full eight-year treatment:

Win2K will retain its mainstream support until March 2005. It will then enter extended support for two years until March 2007 (during which time hot fixes "may" be available), followed by a year of online self-help support. The final lights-out for Win2K will be on March 31, 2008.

This means that Win2K is now and will remain well supported for at least two more years. And, depending on how Microsoft handles the conditionals (the "mays" and "cans" mentioned earlier), it might be good for as much as four more years.

XP Pro And Home
XP Professional is a business product, so it merits the full eight-year treatment: It will remain in mainstream support until December 2006, in extended support until December 2008, and will reach end of life in December 2009, after a year of online self-help support.

XP Home is classified as a consumer product, so it gets the shorter, six-year treatment. It, too, will remain in mainstream support until December 2006, but then skips the extended-support period entirely, going straight to a year of online self-help support, terminating in December 2007.

Both versions of XP are new enough that they still have plenty of support mileage in them, although XP Pro has the possibility of receiving patches and updates in the extra two-year extended-support phase that's not available to XP Home. But either one is currently a safe choice from the simple vantage of support longevity, with years left to run.

From The Horse's, Er, Mouth
Microsoft has several pages that present its various life-cycle schemes, but the pages are not well-done and suffer from a variety of problems. You'll find weasel-wording, opaque language, contradictory statements, essential information buried in footnotes, and a couple of tables laid out by a graphics designer who had no clue about the content of the tables. (But, gee, they look nice.) Plus, one of the main pages mixes support schedules with the separate topic of licensing schedules, which serves only to make an already overly complex subject even murkier.

Still, if you want to wade in on your own:

The most-detailed information can be found on "Windows Desktop Product Life Cycle Support and Availability Policies." http://www.microsoft.com/ windows/lifecycleconsumer.mspx

The "Product Support Lifecycle" page http://support.microsoft.com/ default.aspx?scid=fh;[LN];lifecycle is easier to read but is excessively general; some of the detailed information in the previously cited page contradicts what's stated here.

The "Windows Desktop Service Pack Road Map" http://www.microsoft.com/ windows/lifecycle/desktop/ consumer/servicepacks.mspx tries to address the issue of hot-fix releases over the life of a product.

"Windows Operating System Components" http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ lifecycle/desktop/ consumer/components.mspx looks at the related, but separate, life cycles of important subsystems such as Internet Explorer and Media Player.

Most general of all (and thus containing the least real information) is the "Product Life-Cycle Frequently Asked Questions" http://www.microsoft.com/ windows/lifecycle/desktop/ consumer/faq.mspx page.

End Game For Win98, ME, And NT
The one clear takeaway from all the above is that support for Win98, ME, and NT is drying up in the very near future. Microsoft has moved the goalposts a little, but it wouldn't be wise to count on further extensions. Given how long it can take to make an orderly transition to a new operating system, it's not a moment too soon to be thinking about alternatives. Don't be caught running an unsupported operating system!

What does the loss of support for Win98, ME, and NT mean for you and your company? Will you continue to run these operating systems even when they're no longer being updated and patched, or will you switch to a supported operating system before then? What do you think about Microsoft's cutting two years off "consumer" software as opposed to "business" software, especially when the distinction is mainly one of marketing rather than functionality? How much support is enough, anyway? Join in the discussion!