Microsoft dropped free support this week for Windows XP and Office 2003, leaving state and local governments wondering when they'll be forced to move computers to a newer operating system.
PCMag.com reported that, as of Tuesday, customers now have to pay for Windows incident reports, design changes and warranty support, as well as free bug fixes not directly related to security issues. XP and Office 2003 customers previously got this assistance for free.
How do state and local government officials feel about it?
"To now charge us more for something we already bought and paid for that they can support easily, that most of the users are staying with in a time of economic downturn -- I think it's unconscionable, if not outright extortion," said Hap Cluff, the director of information technology for Norfolk, Va.
Lisa Moorehead, the director of management information systems in the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, said her department doesn't have the budget to pay for repeated incident-report calls.
"That is going to pose huge problems to us and force us to potentially go to an operating system we don't want to go to," said Moorhead, who isn't thrilled with one of her other options: the newer Windows Vista operating system.
"I can tell you, largely with both myself and my colleagues within the state of Massachusetts, we are very concerned with moving toward Microsoft Vista. We are not very happy with the operating system," she said. Windows Vista has been criticized by some users for issues related to privacy, security and performance.
According to Microsoft's Support Lifecycle Policy, mainstream support for business products is provided for five years or for two years after the successor product is released, whichever is longer. XP was released in 2001 and was followed by Vista in January 2007. Microsoft will continue offering free security updates for XP until August 2014.
"During the 'Extended Support' period for Office 2003 and Windows XP, business and consumer customers receive security updates and online support at no additional cost and paid support that is charged on an hourly basis or per incident. Business customers are eligible to receive Hotfix support if an Extended Hotfix Support agreement is purchased within the first 90 days following the end of the Mainstream Support phase," a Microsoft spokesperson said.
"For consumer customers, the price of per-incident support can vary depending on how the consumer purchased the software; however, consumers in the U.S. can generally expect to pay $59 per incident for e-mail, chat and/or phone support. The price for per-incident support for business customers will vary depending on the support issue and the type of support agreement they have with Microsoft," the spokesperson said.
Moorehead isn't looking forward to migrating legions of department PCs that have been running XP to another operating system.
"I do think it's going to pose some problems in productivity, especially in our production environments -- where there are lots of laptops still with Windows XP. There are lots of desktops still with Windows XP," she said. "There have been entire applications developed around using Windows XP because it's been quite robust."
Cluff also feels inconvenienced.
"We're basically stuck with XP because we don't have the money now to upgrade to new, better equipment in order to be able to support and run Vista," Cluff said. He also said he could migrate some PCs to Vista and leave others alone, but the split environment doesn't appeal to him. "You need to do it for everything. Otherwise, you're stuck with operating two operating systems, and that's really a hassle."
Cluff said he has talked to other IT directors in the U.S., and many of them told him they have already started testing open-source solutions like the OpenOffice suite and Red Hat Linux.
Although many users may be unhappy, John Biglin, CEO of the management and technology services consulting firm Interphase Systems, said he doesn't think Microsoft is in the wrong.
"Microsoft continues to invest in improving its operating systems, and XP, in a lot of ways, is an aging operating system. It was released back in the beginning of this decade," he said. "Migrating to a newly evolved desktop operating system is something that's inevitable." Biglin said at least 90 percent of Interphase's clients use XP.
Information Week reported April 3 that Microsoft has yet to announce a release date for the hotly anticipated Windows 7 operating system.
In the meantime, however, government jurisdictions might need to brace themselves.
"For a large enterprise or a large state and local government organization, the migration is not something to take lightly and not plan. It's much more than purchasing licenses and running an upgrade program on the computer," Biglin said. "The best way to work through this type of migration is really to spend time planning the migration process, testing the applications up front and ensuring that you have a logical framework on how you progress from XP to whatever your new operating system is."
Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.