MS to shove XP toward retirement with upcoming support shift

OS moves to 'extended' support in mid-April, but can be used on netbooks 'til 2010

In 10 weeks, Microsoft will begin to retire Windows XP by shifting the seven-year-old OS into a more limited support plan.

Windows XP, Microsoft's most successful operating system ever, will leave what the company calls "mainstream support" on April 14, and enter "extended support." Typically, Microsoft keeps a product in the former for five years, then moves it into the latter for another five, for a total of 10 years. However, the long span between the releases of XP and its successor, Windows Vista, forced the company to push out the support deadline to 13 years altogether.

Also, two years ago Microsoft bumped support for Windows XP Home and XP Media Center to the 2009 and 2014 dates, matching the dates that had previously been set for Windows XP Professional, the designated business edition of the operating system.

By Microsoft policy, mainstream support delivers free fixes -- for security patches and other bug fixes -- to everyone. During extended support, all users receive all security updates, but non-security hot fixes are provided only to companies that have signed support contracts with Microsoft.

Several Microsoft spokespeople confirmed that Tuesday. "Customers will have access to extended support for paid support, security support updates at no additional cost and paid hotfix support," a company spokeswoman said in an e-mail. Firms must purchase an extended support contract within 90 days of XP's mainstream support retirement in April.

"All security updates are provided through both mainstream and extended support," added Frank Fellows, another Microsoft spokesman.

Although it's not unusual for a version of Windows to be still in widespread use when it moves into extended support, XP is a unique case, said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "This is the first time I can remember that we have a situation where people will be continuing to buy devices with an operating system no longer in mainstream [support]," said Cherry.

The devices he was referring to are netbooks, the loose category of low-priced, small-sized laptops that accounted for a significant portion of PC sales in the last few months of 2008. About 80% of all netbooks sold in the last quarter shipped with a copy of Windows, Microsoft claimed last month. The bulk of those netbooks shipped with Windows XP; with its bigger footprint and heartier system requirements, Vista can't be squeezed into most low-end laptops.

Last year, Microsoft extended XP's sales lifespan specifically to account for netbooks, pushing the drop-dead date out to mid-2010.

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Gregg Keizer

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