How Microsoft

The second of a three-part series by David DeJean of Computerworld

Last week, we told you about the history of Microsoft Corp.’s product lifecycle guidelines, which
apply to all Microsoft products, not just operating systems.

During the 1990s, the software vendor found it wasn’t able to bringout products fast enough to satisfy customers. Then the Internet bubbleburst and PC sales slowed, and Microsoft brought in product lifecycleguidelines to reduce support liabilities.

First laid out in 2001 and revised in 2002 and 2004, the guidelinesdefined a three-phase lifespan and created a division between businessdesktop software and consumer desktop software. (In the beginning itwas easier to distinguish between business products based on the NTkernel — like Windows NT and Windows 2000 — and consumer products thatran on top of DOS, like Windows 98 and ME.)

The first phase is the mainstream phase. In the prime of a product’slife, Microsoft provides both free and paid live support, support forwarranty claims, and online self-help support information. Softwaresupport and maintenance is extensive and free, with downloadable fixesand updates, service packs, and freely available support for problemincidents as well as requests for design changes and new features.Business customers may pay for additional support.

In the second, extended phase, free live support and warrantysupport end. Free maintenance of consumer products is limited tosecurity fixes. Self-help support information remains available online.Pay-per-incident live support remains available. Software patches andupdates continue for business desktop software.

In the third phase, the end of the product’s life, online supportinformation is removed. Patches and updates cease. The product ishistory.

These phases were set in a schedule with definite dates anddurations. Business products would be supported for 10 years —mainstream support for five years, extended support for another five.Consumer products would get five years of mainstream support, but noextended support.

But there are two other factors in a product’s lifecycle — service packs and the availability of a new version of the product.

Service packs have a lifecycle of their own. Support for eachservice pack ends 24 months after the next service pack release(support for Windows XP Home SP1 support, for example, ended in 2006,two years after the release of SP2 in 2004) or at the end of theproduct’s support lifecycle, whichever comes first.

When it looked like mainstream support for Windows XP might run outbefore the next version of Windows made it to market, Microsoft amendedthe support lifecycle policy to promise that mainstream support wouldlast for either five years or for two years after a successor versionis released, whichever period is longer.

While the product lifecycle guidelines set very definite limits onproduct life spans, Microsoft has shown a willingness to move thegoalposts when it gets enough pressure. When Windows XP shipped inDecember of 2001, it was slated to be in mainstream support untilDecember of 2006. Microsoft’s internal problems with getting Vista outthe door finally forced the company to extend the mainstream period forXP out to April of 2009, and to make some other accommodations, likeeliminating the distinction between business and consumer versions, sothat XP Home will have an extended support phase just like XP Pro.

The result is that next year, on April 14, 2009, Microsoft will endmainstream support for XP, and five years later, on April 8, 2014, itwill stop supporting XP at all.

The other lifecycle

But even before that, XP faces a major event in an entirelydifferent lifecycle, one that Microsoft has said very little about: thesales lifecycle.

The key dates for sales come much sooner than 2009 or 2014. In fact,in only a few weeks, on June 30, 2008, Microsoft will stop selling XPthrough its retail and original equipment manufacturer channels.

System builders, the “white box” retailers who build PCs to order,will be given another seven months, but on January 31, 2009, a coupleof months before XP exits mainstream support, Microsoft will stopselling XP altogether (except for a version sold in some less-developedcountries and a special arrangement for XP Home in China).

At least that’s the current information. It could change. It has before.

In the past, the company has generally kept the previous version ofWindows on the market for two years or so past the introduction of anew version. That was apparently the plan for XP. When Vista finallyshipped to enterprise customers in late 2006, the on-sale dates for XPwere reset to January 2009.

But the new OS didn’t capture the popular imagination quite the wayMicrosoft had planned. Vista’s heavy demands for hardware, its rockysupport for applications and peripherals, and its draconian securityfeatures have left consumers less than enthusiastic.

Enterprise customers have also been slower to move to Vista than toprevious versions of Windows. A Microsoft reseller, CDW, reported thisJanuary the results of a poll that found that a year after its release,fewer than half of businesses were using or evaluating Vista.

Big OEMs initially switched from XP to Vista when the consumerversions of the OS shipped in January 2007. But by April, Dell, Lenovo,and HP were once again selling machines with XP installed. An April 4post on Dell’s Web site announced the company’s intention to sell XP oncertain systems “until later this summer.” Nearly a year later, thecompany is still selling XP systems.

In September 2007, Microsoft agreed to a six-month extension of XP’son-sale dates, along with license provisions for Vista’s businesseditions that grant buyers the right to downgrade to XP.

All this leaves Microsoft in an unfamiliar position. Its majorcustomers — the OEMs, system builders and enterprise licensees — and avocal part of the Windows user base all appear to be reluctant users ofVista. None of this means that Microsoft is likely to grant XP anotherstay of execution. But it does mean we’re going to be in for aninteresting few weeks leading up to June 30.

What happens after June 30?

Find out when ComputerWorld Canada publishes the final and third part of the series.

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