[This post was originally published April 2013. It was completely updated and republished in October 2013. Most recent update: October 11, 2013.]
The impending retirement of Windows XP and Office 2003 shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. As I’ve noted before, Microsoft has a well-established support lifecycle for its software products. It’s basically an agreement that the company makes with everyone who commits to Windows. The terms of that agreement don’t change often, which is an important assurance for business customers who tend to be conservative in their approach to upgrades.
For the next six months and counting, Microsoft will officially offer support for five versions of Windows for desktop and notebook PCs. Here’s the rundown, starting with the newest member of the family:
Microsoft’s official Windows 8.1 Support Lifecycle Policy treats this update as if it were a service pack for Windows 8. That means the lifecycle calculations start when Windows 8 shipped, in 2012.
This version is currently available only for Microsoft’s volume licensing customers, MSDN and TechNet subscribers, and hardware OEM partners. It will be available to the public as a free update and in retail packages on October 18, 2013.
Mainstream support ends: January 9, 2018
Extended support ends: January 10, 2023
Windows 8 is fully supported today, but you need to update to Windows 8.1 to remain supported under the Windows 8 lifecycle. The deadline is “two years after the General Availability of the Windows 8.1 update,” or October 18, 2015.
The same policy applies to Windows Server 2012 and 2012 R2 (equivalent to Windows 8.1).
Mainstream support ends: see Windows 8.1
Extended support ends: see Windows 8.1
Windows 7 Service Pack 1
This is currently the most popular release of Windows, and promises to hold that top spot for a long, long time. The following support dates require that you install Service Pack 1 (Windows 7 RTM support ended in April 2009).
Note that these dates are identical for Windows Server 2008 R2.
Mainstream support ends: January 13, 2015
Extended support ends: January 14, 2020
Windows Vista Service Pack 2
Fun fact: As of October 2013 the much-reviled Windows Vista was still in use on more computers than any version of OS X. The mainstream support phase ended in 2012, but extended support will continue for a few more years.
Mainstream support ends: No longer supported
Extended support ends: April 11, 2017
Windows XP Service Pack 3
Windows XP is more than 12 years old. It’s midway through a year-long farewell tour , counting down to April 8, 2014, when Microsoft officially ends its support. XP lived longer than any version of Windows ever, getting multiple extensions on its retirement date to placate customers who said no to Vista. But April 2014 is the end of the road. XP will not get a last-minute reprieve.
Mainstream support ends: No longer supported
Extended support ends: April 8, 2014
Let me say that again: Microsoft will not extend the support deadline for XP. If you're still relying on XP, you should have a plan to switch to a supported platform, whether it's from Microsoft or someone else.
April 8, 2014 is a deadline. It's not a death sentence. PCs running XP will not stop working when the clock runs out. In fact, XP diehards won’t notice anything different except an eerie quiet on the second Tuesday of each month. Newer versions, including Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8, will continue to get security patches and bug fixes via Windows Update, but not XP. When the extended support period ends, so do those updates. (Large enterprise customers who have custom support agreements with Microsoft and who are willing to pay a very steep price for the privilege might be able to get custom updates after the official end of support. But consumers and small businesses will not have that option.)
Meanwhile, it’s become obvious that Windows 7 is the new Long Term Support version. If you’re concerned that Microsoft is going to try to kill off Windows 7, you can relax. It’s not time to start a “Save Windows 7” movement yet. You’ve got many years to ponder what comes next.
A couple of footnotes:
Windows RT doesn't exactly fit in the support policy, because it's sold only in combination with ARM-based hardware. Updates to both the operating system and the included Office 2013 programs are delivered through Windows Update. It cannot be upgraded to a different operating system. After a full year on the market, Microsoft's official Windows RT Product Support Lifecycle Policy FAQ still doesn't list any support lifecycle dates. Instead, it simply says:
Microsoft will make software updates, including security updates, available for Windows RT. Additional information regarding the Windows RT lifecycle policy will be communicated as available.
Microsoft has committed to a four-year support lifecycle for Surface RT, which is currently the only Windows RT device on the market.
And if you're curious about Server versions, the clock isn't ticking yet, but it's time to get just a little bit nervous. Extended support for Windows Server 2003 ends on July 14, 2015. That's less than two years away.
Next page: Office support dates and how the Support Lifecycle works