Microsoft has not ditched Outlook Express, said the company, hoping to end speculation about the future of its free e-mail client.

"Work on improving and enhancing Outlook Express never stopped," Matt Pilla, senior product manager for Windows at Microsoft said, wrapping up more than a week of conflicting statements from Microsoft officials about the fate of the product.

Dan Leach, lead product manager for Office at Microsoft, got the ball rolling last week when he said in Australia that Microsoft had stopped development of Outlook Express and was instead focusing on MSN and Hotmail for consumer e-mail. His comments were confirmed by Microsoft's public relations agency.

Two days later, a spokesman for Microsoft's Windows division at the agency said in an e-mail that Leach's statement was "inaccurate." Microsoft did at some point halt development of Outlook Express, moving it to what it calls "sustain engineering" mode, but subsequently reversed that decision because of customer demand, he said.

Leach apparently had not heard about the reprieve for Outlook Express, the spokesman said. "We have been in the process of making this change known inside Microsoft," he said. Later that same day the spokesman issued a new, "accurate" statement that removed the part about halting the development of Outlook Express.

Pilla reiterated that position Thursday. "Outlook Express did not enter the sustain engineering phase, not to my knowledge."

When a product goes into sustain engineering mode it essentially means it is dead, said Rob Enderle, a principal analyst with Enderle Group in San Jose, California. "It is where you are dead and nobody has told you yet," he said.

Microsoft ships Outlook Express as part of the Windows operating system. To date, updates have been delivered together with the Internet Explorer Web browser. The product is targeted at home users; Microsoft sells businesses a richer Outlook client as part of its Office suite.

Enderle has been expecting Microsoft to terminate Outlook Express. It seems the product, even though a target of many worms and viruses, is a tough one to kill.

"It is hard for me to understand why Microsoft needs two e-mail clients," Enderle said. "I think Outlook Express is a redundant product that is not strategic. Outlook makes money and also connects to other products such as Exchange. It lowers the research and development costs if they are only working on one e-mail client."