Enterprise customers still running Windows NT 4.0 after the expiration of support for security updates have the option of paying for special custom support beyond the product lifecycle, Microsoft said on Wednesday.

After first announcing an agreement with banking consortium BITS on parameters for what was described as ''specialized support'' for Windows NT 4.0, the software giant rushed to clarify that the BITS agreement did not represent a shift in policy regarding software support for NT 4.0.

''Microsoft is not changing strategy for NT 4.0 support -- the 'specialized support' mentioned in the release refers to the 'custom support' phase, which Microsoft already made public for NT 4.0 and which customers had already been aware was an option. The information mentioned in the release for financial service organizations via custom support is also the same custom support that is widely available to all Microsoft customers,'' a company spokesperson told internetnews.com.

The custom support option, which the company announced in October 2002, goes beyond the extended support phase and includes assisted support and hot fix-level support. Microsoft said custom support may extend beyond 10 years from the date a product becomes generally available.

Microsoft declined to provide details on pricing for custom support for Windows NT customers. Typically, pricing is determined by the specific needs of high-end enterprise clients.

BITS, a consortium of financial institutions that collectively holds more than half of the nation's financial assets, has been a bitter critic of Microsoft's product support plans. Earlier this year, the group called on software and hardware vendors to provide a higher ''duty of care'' when selling to the financial industry and other critical infrastructure.

It also has been putting pressure on vendors, including Microsoft, to ensure products comply with security guidelines before release and to make the patch-management process more secure and efficient.

A spokesperson for BITS said the consortium was generally happy with Microsoft's response to its concerns and was pleased that Microsoft had ''reduced its pricing for NT support.'' The spokesperson did not elaborate on the price reduction.

She said the decision by Microsoft to ramp up communications and services to address the concerns of BITS members was indeed ''a step toward providing a higher duty of care.''

Microsoft has also agreed to offer localized expertise and assistance to BITS members when installing security updates and implementing system changes. The two sides have also agreed to jointly develop a software security plan geared specifically for the financial industry. Officials from Microsoft's security unit will work with BITS members to implement the plan, which will center around OS patch management and security concerns.

At the TechEd conference in May, Microsoft released plans to expand its enterprise product support lifecycle policy by a minimum of three years, a move that provides customers with a minimum of 10 years of mainstream support, which is up from seven years.

The new policy affected all Microsoft business and developer software but excluded the eight-year-old Windows NT operating system.

This article was first published on InternetNews.com.