TECH ED - Microsoft alters support model for tools

Note to Microsoft developers: mark your calendars.

The software maker is altering the model it uses to determine how long it will offer technical support for its development tools, Chris Flores, lead product manager with Microsoft's .Net tools division, said in an interview Wednesday at the company's Tech Ed developer conference here.

Starting with Visual Basic 6.0, the set of tools released prior to Visual Studio .Net, Microsoft will provide a concrete date for when developers can expect to stop receiving free support for its tools. Previously, the company followed what it calls the "N-2" support cycle for its tools. Under that model, developers were guaranteed free support for the latest version of a product along with the two previous versions.

"We're giving developers real hard dates so they can plan their migration calendar accordingly," Flores said, noting that since Visual Basic 6.0 was released, Microsoft has not held to its typical 12-month to 18-month cycle for releasing upgrades. That has made it difficult for customers to know when they should expect to migrate off the tools they are using, he said.

Offering a definite date for when support will end "gives them a clearer opportunity to plan ahead," he said.

With Visual Basic 6.0, the Redmond, Washington, software maker now plans to offer free support and fixes until 2005 for problems with the product that may arise. After 2005, users will have to pay for online and telephone support queries, and in 2008 support for Visual Basic 6.0 will come to an end.

Under the N-2 model, the free support for Visual Basic 6.0 would have continued until Microsoft releases two version upgrades to Visual Studio .Net, which was released in February. The software maker has yet to announce a date for the first upgrade to Visual Studio .Net, let alone the release that will follow that.

"Some of our more conservative customers have told us that they basically wanted to have more time to prepare for the upgrade," Flores said.

The new support model shouldn't pose a problem for users of Visual Basic 6.0, according to Flores, because fixes and support for the tools will have been "well documented and publicized" by 2005, when the free support is expected to end. One source for technical help is Microsoft's MSDN developer Web site.

John Green, an independent contractor based in Toronto, Canada, who is a long-time Visual Basic developer, agreed. "The likelihood of me actually finding a bug that hasn't already been found is low," Green said.

Moreover, he said, by 2005 "you won't be able to find any developers that want to work in Visual Basic 6.0."

Over time, Microsoft plans to phase out the N-2 support model for all its developer tools, Flores said.

Visual Basic developers make up one of the largest single pools of developers compared to those programming in languages such as Java and C++, according to Microsoft.

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