Microsoft has responded to user fury over delayed product releases and wasted funds on software assurance by extending its product lifecycle policy on some of its products to 10 years from seven.

The announcement in a keynote speech by VP Andy Lees at the software giant's Tech Ed conference in San Diego was greeted with applause from the audience, all apparently genuine.

Microsoft currently offers five years of mainstream support and two years of "extended support". Under the new policy, which starts from 1 June, the extended support period will lengthen to five years or for two years after the second successor product ships, whichever is longer. "Second successor" has been defined as the second major upgrade of the product. However the policy will not apply to consumer, hardware, multimedia and Microsoft Business Solutions products.

"This is designed so that we never have less than two years for a customer to migrate to the next version," said Peter Houston, a senior director at Microsoft. "With something like SQL Server 2005 the challenge was that without this updated policy, mainstream support for SQL Server 2000 might have ended before customers were able to migrate," he said.

The reality however is that Microsoft has had to extend support for several products, including Windows 98/ME and Exchange 5.5, because product delays have left gaps which millions of customers threaten to walk through if support isn't supplied.

More significantly, thousands of software maintenance contracts are due to expire in July and many customers have been vocal in their anger at having spent tens of thousands of pounds while receiving nothing in return thanks again to product shipment delays.

With Microsoft planning to move its entire business more toward support than new software sales - something that analysts are also foreseeing as a shift in the IT industry as a whole - not only would the loss of contracts mean millions of dollars going down the toilet but would also disrupt the company's entire gameplan.

Hence the support extension starting from June.

It is important to draw the distinction between the extended "extended support" time period though and the mainstream support, which remains the same.

Mainstream support includes all the support options and programs Microsoft offers, such as no-charge incident support, paid incident support, support charged on an hourly basis, support for warranty claims and hotfix support.

In the extended support period, Microsoft still offers all paid support options and security fixes, but won't accept requests for warranty support, design changes or new features. Also, hotfix support not related to security issues requires a separate Extended Hotfix Support contract.

"Any business and developer product that is currently under mainstream support will fall under the new policy," Houston said. An example is Windows 2000 but Windows and Office, specifically for home use, don't fall under the policy, he said.

The product support extension is an acknowledgement of the fact that customers aren't upgrading products as fast as they used to, said Peter Pawlak, a senior analyst at Directions of Microsoft. "Products aren't turning over as much as they used to, so Microsoft finally decided that they would just have to move up the general support time," he said.

More information on the updated support policy can be found on Microsoft's support life-cycle policy website.