FAQ: Microsoft mandates new Windows support rules

New PCs must run -- with some exemptions -- Windows 10, company insists

Microsoft last week issued what it called a "clarification" of its support policy that was less an explanation of something existing and more a set of new rules that customers must follow.

"We want to communicate transparently with our customers on what they can expect from their experience on Windows, with a focus on Windows and silicon," Terry Myerson, the Microsoft executive who runs the Windows and devices teams, said in a Jan. 15 post to a company blog. "Today we are clarifying our Windows support policy."

To wit, Myerson -- after spending much of the blog post trumpeting Windows 10's success and how Microsoft's OEM (original equipment manufacturers) partners have been busy designing and building new devices for the new OS -- got down to brass tacks near its end.

"Windows 7 was designed nearly 10 years ago.... For Windows 7 to run on any modern silicon, device drivers and firmware need to emulate Windows 7's expectations for interrupt processing, bus support, and power states -- which is challenging for Wi-Fi, graphics, security, and more," Myerson said. "As partners make customizations to legacy device drivers, services, and firmware settings, customers are likely to see regressions with Windows 7 ongoing servicing."

Regressions. That's a polite way of saying backsliding, or in the case of computer-ese, major screw-ups, crashes and crippled systems.

Myerson then revealed the solution: A shortening of support for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 on the newest PCs -- those equipped with Intel's Skylake processors -- by 30 months, and a new decree that, going forward, next-generation processors will require the "latest Windows platform at that time for support."

That means you, Windows 10.

Myerson's announcement, while not unprecedented for Microsoft, was the first of such magnitude in restricting what edition of Windows customers could run on which systems.

Unpacking the move demands a FAQ. So here we go.

What happens to Windows 7 support? Is Microsoft calling it quits on that OS early? It depends.

If you stick with older hardware -- for most customers, that means PCs no newer than those equipped with Intel's "Haswell" architecture, its fifth-generation processor family -- there's no change. Those devices will continue to receive all security updates until Jan. 14, 2020.

Windows 8.1 PCs will continue to get all security updates through Jan. 10, 2023 on older hardware.

But what happens if I buy a new PC? Support changes for you.

If you purchase a new PC powered by Intel's sixth-generation processors, dubbed "Skylake," and it's on Microsoft's exempt list, you will receive all security updates (Windows 7) or security updates plus other fixes (Windows 8.1) through July 17, 2017, or about 18 months from now.

(This is the second time that Microsoft has given a year-and-a-half heads up in the last two years: It provided a 17-month warning before quashing support for older versions of Internet Explorer (IE) last week.)

Microsoft hasn't officially released the exempt list, but PCWorld, like Computerworld an IDG publication, published a preliminary list on Friday. It includes devices from the usual Big 3 suspects: Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, which are ranked in that order by research firms in number of systems shipped globally.

What happens after July 17, 2017? If you own an exempt PC, Microsoft expects you to upgrade it from Windows 7 or 8.1 to Windows 10 by that date.

Failing that, you'll get only what Microsoft characterized as "the most critical Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 security updates," which while vague, likely means either all patches for flaws rated "critical" in Microsoft's four-step hierarchy, or only a subset of those so labeled -- with the Redmond, Wash. company the arbiter of what "most critical" means.

In other words, a Skylake-powered PC from the exempt list running Windows 7 or 8.1 after the cut-off will receive fewer security fixes than a Haswell-or-earlier device running the same OS.

I'll be buying a Skylake-equipped PC shortly, but it won't be on Microsoft's you're-special list. What do I get? Nothing, nada, zilch, zero on the update front unless that device runs Windows 10.

I'm not in the market for a new PC now, but will be in a couple of years. What do I need to know? This tidbit from Microsoft says it all: "Going forward, as new silicon generations are introduced, they will require the latest Windows platform at that time for support."

Intel's seventh-generation silicon, code-named "Kaby Lake," will be supported only if it's running Windows 10. (Kaby Lake, as its name suggests, is a refresh of Skylake, and is expected to launch in the second half of this year.)

Down the line even further, customers must be running whatever Microsoft labels its "latest Windows platform." Presumably that would still be Windows 10, but even though Microsoft has claimed that 10 is its last version, it could change its mind. It does that a lot lately.

Is this new rule just for businesses, or consumers, too? Microsoft called out "enterprises" in its blog post, but there's no reason to think that the support policy changes don't also apply to consumers.

The difference is that consumers rarely change an OS on a new PC, unlike businesses, which for decades have "downgraded" new hardware to an older OS in order to maintain a homogeneous environment.

For those few consumers who build their own systems, or buy a built-to-order PC from a small shop -- yes, those still exist -- the rules will probably apply if the processor is a sixth-generation Skylake (or later).

(The only way Microsoft could conceivably segregate systems would be by Windows 10 edition: Home, for instance, may be immune to the new rules, but don't count on it.)

How will Microsoft know not to provide full support for, say, Windows 7 on a new Skylake-powered PC after July 2017? Most likely by sniffing out the processor on the device, a task the OS has long done, and continues to do.

Why is Microsoft doing this? The company's stated reason: "Redesigning Windows 7 subsystems to embrace new generations of silicon would introduce churn into the Windows 7 code base, and would break this commitment." By "commitment," Myerson referenced the company's pledge "to deliver security, reliability, and compatibility to our installed base on their current systems."

In English?

Adapting Windows 7 to take advantage of the prominent features in new processors -- in Skylake, for instance, advanced power management -- would be too much work, take too many resources. Ultimately, the company doesn't see the value in backporting new capabilities to an old OS or even maintaining its current skill set that, like Windows 7, is 60% through its support lifecycle.

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