Microsoft tweaks Windows service pack support

Decides not to tick off customers; coincides with Tuesday's Vista RTM retirement

Microsoft yesterday modified its support policy on service packs, and will now take calls from customers running outdated editions of Windows.

The move coincided with the company pulling the plug on Windows Vista RTM (release to manufacturing), the edition that debuted for businesses in late 2006 and hit retail in January 2007.

"Our former policy was to generally turn away customers when they called about problems with outdated service packs," said Jared Proudfoot, group manager of Microsoft Support. "Under the revised policy, we will help those customers."

Rather than tell frustrated customers their hands were tied, support representatives will now be allowed to answer questions about outdated Windows' service packs, fill out support tickets and provide what Proudfoot called "limited troubleshooting."

The change does not alter the actual lifespan of a product -- generally 10 years for business editions of Windows, 5 years for consumer versions -- or extend the timeline for providing security updates, Proudfoot confirmed.

Microsoft's policy is to support a Windows RTM build for at least 24 months after the release of a first service pack, and to support any service pack for the same length of time when it's superseded by a follow-up.

According to Proudfoot, the change of heart was prompted by customer feedback. "We want to make sure that customers have a better experience when they contact us about a supported version of Windows," he said.

The new support for obsolete service packs isn't free, however. All charges and fees apply, said Proudfoot.

Companies or customers that haven't purchased a support plan from Microsoft are billed on a per-incident rate. A consumer contacting Microsoft support via chat or e-mail, for example, is charged $49, while telephone-based support costs $59.

Microsoft timed the announcement to match the end of support for Vista RTM, which as of today is off the support train. The company will no longer provide security patches for that edition; instead, it's urged users to upgrade to Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) or Vista SP2. The former launched in March 2008 , while the latter reached users in May 2009 .

Two other editions -- Windows XP SP2 and Windows 2000 -- are slated to retire in July, with the latter leaving support altogether. Windows XP users, however, are to receive security updates until mid-April 2014 as long as they upgrade to SP3, which launched in May 2008.

Proudfoot denied that the support policy tweak was tied to the extraordinarily long lifespan of Windows XP, which by the time it's retired, will have been supported for almost 13 years, nearly three years longer than any other edition. "This is not in any direct relation to anything to do with XP," he said.

At various times, Microsoft has extended or relaxed support or sales policies for the aged operating systems, particularly when customers balked at upgrading to Vista. Three years ago, Microsoft extended what it calls "mainstream" support for XP Home and XP Media Center until 2009, and pushed back the deadline for the follow-up phase, dubbed "extended," until 2014 to match the dates that had been set earlier for the business-grade XP Professional.

Microsoft finally sent Windows XP into semi-retirement a year ago when it moved the OS into the reduced extended support.

Windows Vista accounts for about 16% of all operating systems powering computers on the Internet, according to current data from Web analytics firm NetApplications.com, while Windows XP retains a 64.5% share. NetApplications does not track individual service pack usage, however.

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