Microsoft: We're not ditching Vista until at least 2011

But it will stop patching consumer editions in April 2012

Microsoft Corp. will not dump Vista when Windows 7 launches and plans to keep selling it to computer makers, system builders, volume licensees and consumers at retail until at least January 2011, a Microsoft spokesman said, citing long-running policy.

The company, however, will drop support for the three consumer editions of Windows Vista in less than three years.

Earlier Monday, a Microsoft general manager hinted to the IDG News Service that the company might ditch Vista as soon as Windows 7 ships. He also said that support for all versions of Vista will end in April 2012.

Neither is true, according to the company.

Richard Francis, general manager and Windows client business group lead at Microsoft Asia-Pacific, told the news service Monday that, "We are still not sure if [computer makers] will be able to ship Vista once Windows 7 is made available." The comment fueled speculation that Microsoft, embarrassed by the poor reception given to Vista, was getting ready to abandon the operating system at the first opportunity.

Not so.

In a follow-up reply to questions today, a Microsoft spokeswoman declined to confirm that the company would, in fact, dump Vista when Windows 7 appears. "We have not made any final end-of-sales decisions for Windows Vista," she said in an e-mail.

But she also pointed out that Microsoft's policy is to keep an OS in distribution for at least four years after its debut. "Under the Support Lifecycle policy, Windows desktop licenses are available for four years after general availability in all standard product distribution channels -- direct OEM, system builders, retail and volume licensing programs via licenses or via downgrade rights," Microsoft's Web site states.

For Vista, that mark would be January 2011 -- four years after its January 2007 launch.

Even without that policy, it would be a sharp departure from past practice if Microsoft did drop Vista shortly after Windows 7 shipped. According to Computerworld's analysis of Windows 95's, Windows 98's and Windows XP's transition periods -- the time span during which the company sold both old and new versions -- Microsoft has never offered less than a six-month overlap. When Windows 98 was released in June 1998, for example, its predecessor, Windows 95, was kept on the OEM and retail rolls for two-and-a-half years. Windows 98, however, was available for just six months after the 2001 launch of its successor, Windows XP.

"Windows 7 has the potential to not be met with the same resistance as Vista," said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "But to try to stop Vista or make it unavailable, that would just draw attention," he added. "The truth is, few people will be likely to order it once Windows 7 is available."

The situation with Windows 7 following Vista will be quite different from the preceding pair of Vista and Windows XP. The latter, which will be available as a factory-installed downgrade option from most OEMs through the end of July 2009, is clearly an anomaly, said Cherry. "This will self-regulate on its own," he added, referring to the availability transition. He pointed to XP's numerous extensions as an example.

As for Vista support, Microsoft's Francis got that wrong as well, the company spokeswoman confirmed.

Three editions of the operating system -- Vista Home Basic, Home Premium and Ultimate -- do drop out of what Microsoft calls "mainstream" support on April 10, 2012, approximately five years after Vista's retail debut. Because they're considered "consumer" operating systems, Microsoft does not provide what it calls "extended" support to those versions, meaning it plans to end all support for those editions in under three years.

However, the two editions aimed at business, Vista Business and Vista Enterprise, receive an additional five years of extended support, for a total of 10 years. Business and Enterprise -- the latter is available only to companies that have volume licensing agreements with Microsoft -- will thus be offered security updates until April 11, 2017.

Microsoft's mainstream support delivers free fixes -- for security patches and other bug fixes -- to everyone, but during extended support, non-security hot fixes are provided only to companies that have signed support contracts with Microsoft. Security patches, however, are still generated in extended support.

"I don't see Microsoft changing those dates for Vista," said Cherry. "They're triggered by the release of the product."

Microsoft, which will deliver the Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC) to the general public tomorrow, has not named a launch date for the new operating system. Comparisons to the timetables for Windows XP and Vista, however, have pegged a ship date that could come as early as August 2009.

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