FAQ: Microsoft monkeys with Windows 10 support – again

Microsoft unveiled a slew of changes to Windows 10 support, acknowledging that its rapid development-and-release tempo is still being resisted by enterprises.

windows 10
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Every so often, Microsoft feels the need to turn its Windows support world upside down.

In 2016, it surprised users by telling them that PCs equipped with newer processors would only be supported by Windows 10. Older OSes, including the venerable Windows 7, would see their effective support lifespans shortened.

It must be time on the calendar for another disturbance in the support force.

Last week, Microsoft announced a slew of changes to Windows 10 support, again acknowledging that its rapid development and release tempo is still being resisted by its most important customers, enterprises.

"Many customers have made significant progress in moving to Windows as a service ... [but] some customers have requested an extension to the standard 18 months of support for Windows 10 releases," acknowledged Bernardo Caldas, Windows' general manager, in a Feb. 1 post to a company blog.

What, exactly, did Microsoft do to accommodate those users? And did it offer anything to customers who didn't - or cannot - complain?

We have answers to those questions, and others.

What's happening to Windows 10 support? Microsoft is changing the length of time it will support some editions. Again.

If you're running Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro, the timeline changes do not affect you. But Microsoft did reveal other information important to you and your PC, so keep reading.

What's new about Windows 10 Enterprise support? Microsoft gave its most important customers - larger organizations - an extra six months of support for each already-issued Windows 10 feature upgrade.

Rather than stop updates to Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education versions 1607, 1703 and 1709 after 18 months, Microsoft will provide 24 months of support for those feature upgrades.

The nineteenth through twenty-fourth months of that support will be limited to security-only updates; there will be no non-security bug fixes issued for 1607, 1703 and 1709 during the six-month extension.

Doesn't this sound familiar? Yes.

Microsoft did the same for Windows 10 Enterprise and Education version 1511 in November. That feature upgrade preceded 1607, the first one on the new list.

Originally slated to retire on Oct. 10, 2017, Enterprise and Education 1511 were given a six-month reprieve; at the time Microsoft only cited April 2018. Last week, the company set 1511's end at April 10.

Is this support extension permanent for Enterprise and Education customers? Short answer: We don't know.

Microsoft was cagey in its public messaging, specifically calling out the feature upgrades issued so far - 1511, 1607, 1703 and 1709 - but never hinting that the same extension would be given to, say, 1803, the upgrade that will ship next month or perhaps in April. Nor did the firm's rationale for the extension clear up things.

"Some customers have requested an extension to the standard 18 months of support for Windows 10 releases," wrote Caldas. His use of the word "standard" to describe the 18-month stretch is telling; it may signal that Microsoft will discard the extension.

On the other hand, because unhappy corporate customers - many of whom have groused about Windows 10's rapid release model since, well, always - triggered Microsoft's decision, the company may find it more trouble than it's worth to withdraw the extra six months of support.

If we were the betting kind, we would put money on this temp solution becoming the standard policy for Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education. And the wager isn't just a hunch; several analysts told Computerworld last year that their clients hoped for a 24-month support lifecycle.

"They're already paying more for the privilege of running Enterprise," said Michael Silver of Gartner about corporate customers and the highest-priced edition. "Make the [expanded support] a benefit."

What would happen if Microsoft reverted to the 18-month support schedule? In a word, chaos.

Okay, not really. But the transition from 24 to 18 months would be, at best, awkward.

If, for example, Microsoft decided that 1803, the feature upgrade set to ship in the next two months, would sport just 18 months of support, 1803 would expire Sept. 10, 2019, the same date that 1709, which was given 24 months, was to retire. That could throw off companies' upgrade plans, which had been premised on 24 months of support.

Businesses want more consistency from Microsoft, not less.

We run Windows 10 Pro on some systems here. Anything for that edition? Yes, there is: definite retirement dates.

Previously, Microsoft had listed end-of-support for versions 1607, 1703 and 1709 with cautious month-long cutoffs, such as "Tentatively March 2018" and "Tentatively September 2018." Last week it got specific.

The retirement dates for already-released Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro versions are:

1607: April 10, 2018

1703: Oct. 9, 2018

1709: April 9, 2019

Those dates look suspiciously like a pattern. Are they? Yes, indeed. They are all Patch Tuesdays, the second Tuesday of the given month, and the day that Microsoft issues its security updates for its product lines, including Windows.

So, future end-of-support dates can be easily promulgated for Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro:

1803: Oct. 8, 2019

1809: April 14, 2020

1903: Oct. 13, 2020

1909: April 13, 2021

Since we're in a forecasting mood, what would be the end-of-support dates for Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education if Microsoft maintains the 24-month support lifecycle? We aim to please. Here you go:

1803: April 14, 2020

1809: Oct. 13, 2020

1903: April 13, 2021

1909: Oct. 12, 2021

We rely on Windows 10's Long-term Serving Channel on the PCs we don't want to monkey with unless absolutely necessary. What news on LTSC? Microsoft didn't forget you.

Last we heard, Microsoft had promised that the follow-up to Windows 10 LTSB 1607 - the most-current version - would release in 2019. "The next LTSB release is expected for 2019," Nathan Mercer, senior product marketing manager, said in May 2017, referring to the earlier label for the stable build.

Microsoft's moved that release date up. "The next LTSC release, Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC 2018, will be available in the fall of 2018," said the company's Bernardo Caldas last week. That timing means the fall feature upgrade, pegged as 1809 (but without, as of now, a catchier title), will be turned into the newest LTSC.

The date advance still fit within Microsoft's stated interval of two-to-three years between each LTSB/LTSC release, although the company offered no explanation for the accelerated schedule. It may have had something to do with Microsoft's mandate of a year ago, when it quietly revealed that each LTSB (again, now called LTSC) "will support the currently released silicon at the time of release of the LTSB" and that "as future silicon generations are released, support will be created through future Windows 10 LTSB releases that customers can deploy for those systems."

We can't keep up with the Windows 10 cadence, even with 24 months of support. What do we do? Get ready to fork over more money to Microsoft.

As it roiled support with its changes of last week, Microsoft also announced it will provide extra-long support lifecycles for Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education to customers. For a price. An undisclosed price.

"We will also offer additional paid servicing options for Windows 10 Enterprise and Education releases starting with Windows 10 version 1607," said Caldas, who told customers to contact their Microsoft account team for more information.

Just what such "paid servicing options" will cost, how long they will provide post-retirement support and even what they will be called remain unknown.

Microsoft's most recent support add-on program, dubbed "Premium Assurance," opened for business more than a year ago. For prices ranging from 5% to 12% of the current licensing costs, customers can purchase 12 months of extended support for Windows Server and/or SQL Server.

Oddly, Premium Assurance disappeared from Microsoft's product terms at the beginning of this month, according to a tweet from Directions on Microsoft, a research firm that specializes in tracking the company's moves.

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