Users of Microsoft's Office 97 products can no longer take advantage of the company's free customer support service as of Friday, a result of a policy shift that analysts say was implemented to tap customers for more revenue and encourage upgrades to newly released versions of its software.
With the debut of Microsoft's Office XP productivity suite, the company nixed free phone and Web support for home and business users running Office 97 as part of a year-old policy called the Product Support Lifecycle. The policy was originally created to phase out support for its line of operating systems, but was quietly extended this week to include applications as well.
The policy, also known as "N-2," states that the day after Microsoft goes live with a new product, the company's services division will support only the latest version of that product and one version prior. Analysts note that the shift in strategy to include other software besides operating systems could also affect customers in need of bug fixes.
"This is a killer for customers of Office 97," said Neil MacDonald, an analyst with Gartner. "They have had this policy for their operating systems but I would say it was never clearly documented to the majority of their Office customers."
Microsoft said it posted a notice on its Web site regarding the policy change. A Microsoft spokeswoman would not comment Friday on specifics of the policy, issuing only a brief statement.
"(These) policy changes reflect Microsoft's commitment to simplifying the framework for its support services following a product lifecycle plan," the spokeswoman wrote Friday. " Microsoft continues to invest in the latest technology and training for support services staff to make global product planning effective and efficient."
Windows 95 users have been without free support since August 2000, when the company first altered its support services policy. At the time, some Office customers were also limited to two free support issues. As of June 1, customers using all versions off Office will be limited to two free inquiries. MacDonald said this is the first time the policy will completely cut off users of its desktop software. According to analyst estimates, more than 60 percent of Microsoft's total user base runs Office 97 or Office 95.
"We're talking about something that's four-and-a-half years old," said Chris Le Tocq, principal analyst with Guernsey Research, of the Office 97 product suite. "Although there are a lot of businesses that still have Office 97 running, getting free support so many years after, that's pressing your luck."
Customers will now be forced to get support from the software maker through paid service programs. Microsoft will offer customer support for home users for US$35 per incident through the Web and by phone. Professional support will cost $245 for support requests over the telephone and $195 over the Web. The policies do not apply to products purchased under Microsoft's volume licensing programs, and customers running versions pre-installed in a computer can get support from a hardware vendor.
A number of third-party help desks are also available to Office 97 customers for a fee, a common method of maintaining Office products in the business environment, Le Tocq said.
Microsoft brought a number of changes to the way it services customers running older versions of its products with the release of Office XP. Office XP does not run on the Windows 95 operating system. In addition, Office 95 users cannot take advantage of the lower-cost upgrade to Office XP, and must purchase new licenses at full cost.
While analysts note that Office 97 has been around long enough that it has become a relatively stable product, the change in support policy points to a new strategy by the Redmond, Washington software giant to bring in new revenue with its services division, which officially launched itself as a profit-driven business in April.
"From Microsoft's standpoint, they need that revenue," Le Tocq said. "People should become aware of the (product lifecycle); they should also become aware that Microsoft is changing its licensing model."