12:43 PM

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.

On that date, free live help for Win98 issues will cease, although paid incident support will be extended for another six months until Jan, 16. Any Win98 security issues identified before June 30 will be patched via freely downloadable hot fixes, but security issues discovered after June 30 may or may not be patched: Microsoft says, "Customers can request Windows 98/98 SE fixes for new security issues and these requests will be reviewed." Thus, Microsoft is reserving the right to patch or not to patch, as it sees fit. And in any case, no new Win98 patches will be released after January, when Win98 enters the nonsupport phase.

This is a key issue for Win98 users: You can only count on having up-to-date security patches for Win98 through early summer of this year. After that, using Win98 will become increasingly risky. Microsoft may release additional patches, but is not promising to do so. So, after June of this year, using Win98 becomes a crap shoot.

By January, Win98 will be in the operating-system equivalent of suspended animation: There'll be no maintenance, upgrades, or patches for the operating system at all. The only support available will be via self-help pages on the Microsoft Web site. Finally, in January 2005, Win98 will reach full end of life, with no support offered of any kind.

Windows ME
WinME also is in wide use, so Microsoft tweaked the life-cycle plans for that as well, though not as much as for Win98:

WinME is now in the last months of its mainstream phase. At the end of the year, it will enter the extended phase. Patches and hot fixes will dry up. In Microsoft's own (confusing) words:

For Microsoft's independent software vendor (ISV), independent hardware vendor (IHV), and OEM customers only, hotfixes for Windows Millennium Edition will only be available in the Mainstream phase for home and run-time scenarios based upon identified trends. For enterprise accounts that purchased licenses for Windows Millennium Edition prior to April 1, 2001, and require hotfix support, please contact your technical account manager or applications development consultant.

The "extended" support phase for WinME runs for a year, until December 2004, when WinME will enter the nonsupport phase. End of life follows a year later, in December 2005.

So it appears that WinME users can count on essential patches and updates only through the end of this year, unless at some later date Microsoft decides to grant WinME users a little extra life the way it did for Win98 users.

Windows NT 4.x
Because NT4.x is nowhere nearly as popular as Win98 and WinME, Microsoft did not relax or extend its originally scheduled support options for this operating system. NT4 entered the "extended" support phase in June 2002. It will enter the "nonsupport" phase on June 30, 2003, and will reach "end of life" on June 30, 2004.

Newer Operating Systems
Windows 2000 and XP fall into the three-step support life-cycle Microsoft is trying to implement: The basic idea is that business products will have an eight-year life: five years of mainstream (full) support, and two years of extended support which "...includes assisted support that may be charged on an hourly basis and can include hotfix support." The eighth and final year is online self-help support, analogous to the nonsupport option mentioned earlier for older operating systems.

Consumer products will have a six-year life, starting with the same five-year support plan that business products also have, but skipping the extended-support period entirely. Instead, at the end of the fifth year, these products move straight to one year of online self-help support.

Yes, it's confusing. And Microsoft's weasel wording (" 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." windows/lifecycleconsumer.mspx

The "Product Support Lifecycle" page 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" 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" 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" 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!

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