Last week, Microsoft announced that it will dramatically simplify its product support lifecycle. This change comes just over three years after the company first standardized its product support lifecycle in a bid to mollify enterprise customers who were looking for more predictability from the software giant.

Under the terms of the new policy, Microsoft will stop ending product support at the end of calendar quarters and will instead match the end date of product support with the company's regularly scheduled monthly security updates. You may recall that Microsoft issues its monthly security updates on the second Tuesday of each month (actually, if you don't recall that, it might be time to consider a career in marketing). The problem is that the end of each calendar quarter--March 31, June 30, September 30, and December 31--comes just days before the second Tuesday of the following month. So if a product had just come out of support on one of those days, customers often couldn't take advantage of fixes that might have otherwise been released.

Now, Microsoft products will stop being supported on the second Tuesday of the month following the end of each calendar quarter, in sync with the company's security patch release schedule. So if a product that is exiting support requires a final patch, that patch can ship on the final day of support. This situation isn't as theoretical as it sounds. On December 31, 2005, Microsoft would have ended support for Exchange Server 5.5 under terms of the previous support policy. However, switching to the new lifecycle scheme, Microsoft instead ended support for Exchange 5.5 on Tuesday, January 10, and issued the final Exchange 5.5 security patch on that day. (Note, however, that Microsoft does offer a fee-based custom support option for Exchange 5.5 customers who need more time to complete a migration away from that product version.)

"We changed the end of support dates to map to the monthly security update release cycle so our customers can take advantage of the latest security updates," Ines Vargas, the group manager for Microsoft Support Lifecycle Program said, referring to the new policy. "By eliminating that 10-to-15-day gap, we're making sure that our dates make sense to our customers [and] that they're even more consistent and predictable."

What hasn't changed, of course, is Microsoft's basic timeline for product support. That is, Microsoft provides five years of mainstream support for its enterprise products released since October 2002, followed by five years of extended support. (These dates are effective beginning on the date on which the product became generally available.) Once a product enters extended support, Microsoft will no longer consider product design changes or provide no-charge non-security product updates (security updates are still provided for free during extended support, however). At the end of extended support, ten years after a product's initial release, customers can pay for support on a per-incident basis or purchase an Extended Hotfix Support Agreement.

For details about Microsoft's adjusted lifecycle expiration schedule, please refer to the Microsoft Web site. Microsoft's product support lifecycle is also available.

Speaking of product support, Microsoft issued three security fixes this month, including an eagerly-awaited fix for the WMF file format flaw that generated international news of the type the software giant would prefer didn't happen. That fix, interestingly, was issued almost a week before the second Tuesday of the month, a fairly rare event, prompted by bad press and frightened users. By my count, that's two big changes for Microsoft this month, and it's early yet. Not too shabby.

This article originally appeared in the January 17, 2006 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.