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Microsoft's Windows maintenance program is in the spotlight as the company has admitted to bending its support rules over security while cutting support to users of Windows XP Home Edition early.

The company has said it will, in future, release security updates for products that would normally not receive updates as they'd exceed Microsoft's stated support lifecycle.

Microsoft said it is now matching the date that a product support cycle ends with its regular monthly security update release cycle, known as "Black Tuesday".

The first products to benefit from the change are the increasingly dated Exchange Server 5.0 and Exchange Server 5.5, which this week received updates contained in Microsoft's January 2006 patch. The patch fixes a problem judged "critical", which would have allowed malicious code to run in Exchange and Outlook.

The change comes four years after Microsoft standardized its Windows support policy, introducing three phases called "mainstream", "extended" and "self help" that last five, five and up to eight years after a product's introduction.

Mainstream support delivers free security and hot fixes, while extended support maintains security fixes but ends hot fixes and free support. After that, users are on their own and must search Microsoft's knowledge base and web casts for answers.

The change follows a storm of controversy over Microsoft's tardy response to the recent Windows Meta File (WMF) vulnerability. Additionally, a large number of Microsoft's corporate email users are believed to still be running Exchange Server 5.0 and 5.5, launched in 1997 and 1998 respectively, meaning Microsoft has a vested interest in continuing to provide support for the latest vulnerabilities.

Microsoft said the change provided "greater consistency and predictability for customers".

Meanwhile, millions of consumers running Windows XP Home Edition will see an end to all support three-years ahead of those running Windows XP Professional despite both operating systems becoming generally available at the same time.

While Microsoft is pushing out mainstream support for Windows XP Home Edition to two years after the shipment of successor Windows Vista, due in the second half of 2006, Windows XP Home Edition will not receive extended support.

That potentially means an end to all support for Window XP Home Edition at the end of 2008, while Windows XP Professional edition should continue until the end of 2013.

It is Microsoft policy not to move consumer products into extended support, although the additional two years have been granted because of the delay to Windows Vista and in recognition of the fact Windows XP Home Edition is "a bit different" to other consumer products from Microsoft, a Microsoft spokesperson said.

It's not like consumers can do without the support. Twenty-four security holes still remain unfixed in Windows XP Home Edition, according to vulnerability monitor Secunia. A total of 109 holes have been found since 5 September, 2005.

The premature end to support means Windows XP Home Edition users will be forced to trawl Microsoft's free online knowledge base and web casts for home fixes.®

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