Users and suppliers could work together on support strategies.
Microsoft's announcement last week that it is extending the support lifecycle of its enterprise products to 10 years has highlighted the importance of suppliers providing clear roadmaps for users about product lifecycles.
The move was made in response to user criticism that Microsoft's product release cycle was pushing users into unnecessary upgrades.
Suppliers will always want to move users on to the latest versions of their products. However, Ronan Miles, chairman of the Oracle User Group, said users sometimes felt the IT supplier community was driving the market as if it were a fashion parade rather than focusing on supporting business use of software.
He said release dates, for example, were the subject of rumour and varied depending on a "quality/time to market compromise".
"This can leave users with great difficulty in being able to accurately schedule systems upgrades on applications that are busy earning their companies revenue. This is a particular problem if capital investment is needed," said Miles.
Microsoft's move highlights the possibility of an alternative. It has raised the prospect of suppliers and users working together to devise support strategies that offer both certainty to users and a realistic rate of return on their intellectual property for suppliers.
Many organisations do not want to run bleeding-edge software, preferring to rely on older, more stable products. Other users have legacy systems running business-critical applications and cannot justify an upgrade.
Software suppliers have generally been willing to provide a custom support contract for such users, at a price that only major organisations such as governments and global businesses can afford.
Sometimes suppliers have responded to user pressure with extended maintenance deadlines. In 2002, Oracle twice extended support for its 10.7 applications suite after pressure from its user group.
In March 2004, OS/390 mainframe users faced a dilemma brought about by IBM's decision to end support for a release of its z/OS operating system. Independent IBM user group GuideShare Europe won a six-month extension, giving users extra time to buy the necessary upgrade.
However, Microsoft said its extended lifecycle guarantee would not apply to NT4, which will lose its extended support in December. In the light of last week's announcement, users may be tempted to renew their campaign for an extension.
Users accept that suppliers cannot afford to support software indefinitely, but they do want mutually agreed alternatives about how products will be supported in the long-term.
What are the alternatives when support ends?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to enterprise software product support. Open source support, escrow and self-service help are among the options available.
Julie-Ann Williams, chairman of the large systems special interest group at GuideShare Europe, said, "When some software companies drop support, there is no help or advice available. I would like to see suppliers take a more reasonable approach [to support]."
Suppliers of mainframe software, such as Computer Associates and IBM, have taken a sensible approach to supporting legacy products, according to Williams.
They gave users access to the database of technical know-how, gathered from years of supporting products, once support ended, she said. The information was often made available for free.
Putting software in escrow is another alternative, as it gives users access to source code in the event of the supplier going out of business.
Another option is support through the open source community. Sun last week announced that it planned to release source code from its Solaris operating system under an open source licence, though it gave no details of how much code would be made open source or when.
Last month at its annual user conference, CA announced it would be passing the CA-Ingres database to the open source community - a move that could prolong support for the legacy database. This approach may make sense since the technical complexity of support should diminish as a product matures.