Microsoft will support its Surface RT tablet with updates, including security patches, until April 2017, or nearly four-and-a-half years after its launch.
The support lifecycle for the Surface with Windows RT tablet is less than half the usual 10 years Microsoft allots its software products -- including Windows 8 -- but is considerably longer than what Apple has given the first-generation iPad, which has already dropped off the Cupertino, Calif. company's list.
ZDNet blogger Ed Bott first reported on Microsoft's publication of the Surface RT's lifecycle.
Microsoft will support the Surface RT only in the "Mainstream" support phase, presumably because it's considered a consumer product. The company typically supports consumer-grade software only during that five-year period; all business software, as well as some titles that are designed for consumers, such as Office Home and Student 2010, receive another five-year stretch, called "Extended" support, for a total of 10 years.
The company usually supports its in-house hardware, such as the July-launched Wedge Touch Mouse, which was touted as an accessory for Windows 8-based tablets and laptops, for five years. Microsoft classified the Surface RT as hardware in its support lifecycle index.
It's not clear why Microsoft decreased the Surface RT's support lifespan by a year from the normal hardware lifecycle: Bott speculated that it may have been because the tablet was "a hardware-software combo, [and] plays by a different set of rules, apparently."
But the four-years-and-change for the Surface RT is twice what Apple granted the original iPad.
iOS 6, which Apple launched in September, does not work on the original iPad.
Assuming Apple hews to that unwritten support plan, it will dump the iPad 2 from its list in mid-2013.
The disparity between the two companies' support policies isn't unusual. Both Microsoft's typical decade of support and its five years for hardware and some consumer products, exceeds the 35-month average support lifespan of OS X, the operating system that powers Apple's Mac personal computers.
Unlike Microsoft, Apple never puts its support lifecycle lengths in writing.
But while Microsoft revealed the Surface RT's lifecycle, it declined to spell out how long it will support Windows RT, the touch-enabled, tile-based OS that runs not only the Surface, but some tablets sold by other computer makers.
In a cryptic FAQ published on its support site, Microsoft said only, "Microsoft will make software updates, including security updates, available for Windows RT. Additional information regarding the Windows RT lifecycle policy will be communicated as available."
Supporting Windows RT -- as opposed to the Surface RT -- for less than 10 years would be a dramatic departure for Microsoft, and could raise the ire of customers, especially businesses that have adopted, or plan to, the mobile operating system.
For example, Windows 8, which Microsoft also launched Oct. 26, remains in Mainstream support until Jan. 9, 2018, and won't be fully retired until Jan. 10, 2023, when it exits Extended support.
To demarcate Windows RT's lifecycle as shorter than a decade would also rub against a move Microsoft made last February, when it quietly extended support for the consumer versions of Windows 7 and Windows Vista by five years, for a total of 10, to synchronize them with the lifespan of enterprise editions.
The lifecycle for Surface RT could be a harbinger of a shorter-than-usual support lifetime for Surface Pro, the not-yet-released tablet Microsoft plans to launch at the end of January 2013. That tablet will be powered by an Intel processor, and run Windows 8 Pro.