Update: Support for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation ends

Companies needing assistance can still use the company's self-help option

The extended support phase for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT 4.0 Workstation operating system -- which will mark its seventh birthday on July 29 -- officially came to an end yesterday, as the company had said it would. That means corporate users needing assistance will now have to rely on the company's self-help online option or contract with Microsoft or an outside company for NT 4.0 Workstation-related problems.

What Microsoft refers to as its "mainstream support" phase ended a year ago for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation. Mainstream support includes no-charge incident support, support for warranty claims, "hot fix" support, security patches, paid incident support and support charged on an hourly basis.

Extended support includes only the paid support options, with the exception of security-related hot fixes, which are still provided at no charge. A hot fix is a modification to commercially available product code to address a specific problem.

Microsoft in October announced a "Support Lifecycle" policy calling for most products to be supported for a minimum of five years, followed by a two-year extended support phase that customers can purchase. Self-help online support is available for a minimum of eight years after a product is released.

The mainstream support phase for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation lasted nearly a year longer than the minimum five-year period, but the extended support phase ceased about a month shy of the seven-year mark.

By contrast, Microsoft elected to extend pay-per-incident and premier support for Windows NT 4.0 Server -- which, like the Workstation edition, was released on July 29, 1996 -- through Dec. 31, 2004. Nonsecurity hot fixes are available with a custom contract until the end of this year.

At the time Microsoft announced the extension in January (see story), Bob O'Brien, a group product manager in the Windows server division, estimated that between 35% and 40% of Windows server deployments were NT 4.0. He said "common sense" dictated that the company should extend key support provisions "if you want to have a relationship with these customers for the next seven to 10 years."

Mike Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said he also thinks Microsoft should have extended support for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation. He noted that a survey of Gartner clients conducted in conjunction with a conference showed that 35.4% of 850,000 desktops were still running NT 4.0 Workstation. In Europe, the number was even higher, with 57% of the 505,000 desktops running the aging operating system.

"Every organization needs to come to its own terms about how big an exposure that is," Silver said. He added that many IT professionals figure that the operating system has been running for some time without problems, and the desktop applications are working, so they don't need support.

"It's much more than that," Silver said. "If a new security hole is found, Microsoft may not fix it."

New applications haven't supported Windows NT 4.0 Workstation for some time, he said, "so enterprises really need to move."

Andy Erlandson, director of product support services at Microsoft, said Microsoft considered a variety of factors when making its decision about the support end date for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, including customer feedback, call volume and the upgrade paths available to customers.

"On the server side, there was just Windows 2000 until recently, when we launched Windows Server 2003. On the client side, Windows 2000 and XP have been out for quite a while," Erlandson said. "We made a decision that we needed to extend support for NT Server, but for the client, we didn't feel the need to do that for everyone. We still have customer support arrangements for those who do need that support."

Erlandson said Microsoft's former life-cycle plan, announced on Feb. 2, 2001, called for the client operating system to have mainstream support for three years and extended support for one year. When Microsoft announced its new Support Lifecycle plan last fall, it didn't "retrofit" all of its older products to the new five-year mainstream and two-year extended support cycles, he said.

No-charge assisted support and extended hot fix support for Windows 98 -- which was released five years ago -- also ended yesterday. But Microsoft is providing paid support through Jan. 16, 2004, when the product will be considered obsolete, with no assisted support available.

"What's the point?" said Silver. "For enterprises, since it doesn't include bug fix support, there's still no insurance if some big hole is found that Microsoft will fix it. It doesn't buy enterprises much to extend the assisted support without the hot fix support."

Erlandson said the support decision involving Windows 98 wasn't aimed at enterprise customers but at consumers. He said the call volume for enterprise customers needing support with Windows 98 has been very light.

Online self-help support for Windows 98 will be available at least until June 30, 2006, according to Microsoft's Web site.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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