Microsoft has given in to the drawn-out migration timetables of its Exchange 5.5 customers and agreed to offer a free year of extended support on the messaging server. Microsoft hopes the additional support, which includes hot fixes, security hot fixes and pay-per-incident support, will give users extra time to migrate and guarantee they move to Exchange 2000 or Exchange 2003, which Microsoft plans to ship on 21 October this year.

The company also hopes it will keep customers from jumping to rival platforms. Microsoft would like to keep its more than 100 million Exchange users around for the "Kodiak" version that figures prominently in its .Net platform strategy. Microsoft doesn’t expect to ship Kodiak until 2006.

Last November, Microsoft announced that mainstream support of Exchange 5.5 would end on 31 December 2003. The change, part of modifications across the board in Microsoft's product support programmes, also gave customers the option of paying for an additional two years of mainstream support. Microsoft calls it 'extended support'.

The company is now waiving the first year of the fee, which varies depending on the number of hot fixes a customer requests. Extended support ends for good on 31 December 2005, and no form of support will be available after that date. Microsoft was not specific on pricing, saying only that 'customers should contact their premier support contract or account representative.'

Microsoft has been trying to nudge customers off the ageing Exchange 5.5 platform, which was first shipped in February 1998, ever since it shipped Exchange 2000 in November 2000. And with the impending launch of Exchange 2003, the company would like to accelerate the migration process. Customers have been reluctant to move to Exchange 2000 or 2003 because they must also migrate to Active Directory. The option of moving to either Exchange 2000 or 2003 has further slowed migration decisions. Roughly 40 percent to 60 percent of Exchange customers are still on the 5.5 platform and their reluctance to move has set off a feeding frenzy by rivals, including IBM/Lotus, Novell and second-tier messaging vendors.

A Microsoft spokeswoman asserted that few customers were leaving the (Exchange) fold. "We are confident that customers will go to Exchange 2003", she said, adding that the free year of extended support would provide customers more time to migrate and the flexibility to do it on their own timetables and budget cycles.