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An estimated 18,000 IT professionals in the UK stood to lose their status as Microsoft certified systems engineers (MCSEs) unless they agreed to retrain in Windows 2000 by the end of the year.
In a significant U-turn, Microsoft said that it now recognised that many businesses had yet to upgrade to Windows 2000 and would still need staff with MCSE NT4 qualifications.
The decision reflects the slowdown in IT spending in the US and the UK, which is leading many companies to delay plans to upgrade to Windows 2000.
Simon Moores, director of the Microsoft Users forum, said, "Microsoft has suddenly realised that it cannot impose its product directions on the customer base by fear. For the first time in this industry's history, customers are starting to say 'we have a choice'."
The about-turn will particularly benefit IT professionals in the public sector, which traditionally takes longer to upgrade its IT systems than the private sector, Moores said.
Under the new scheme, Microsoft said it will recognise the Windows NT4 MCSE "indefinitely", and that the Windows 2000 qualification will now be formally known as the MCSE in Windows 2000.
However, Microsoft's change of heart has failed to impress some IT directors, who argue that the company's decision to pull the plug on new NT4 MCSE examinations 12 months ago was unfair to users.
David Rippon, IT director at Land Securities, said, "We are still running NT. I will move to 2000 sometime next year. The fact that the exam no longer exists means that I cannot get new people trained up."
Microsoft said significant numbers of IT professionals are choosing to upgrade their skills to Windows 2000. "We have close to 50,000 MCSEs on Windows 2000 and more than 150,000 in the pipeline," said Anne-Marie MacSweeny, director of certification and skills assessment at Microsoft.