FAQ: Microsoft ups Windows 10 support to 30 months

Microsoft earlier this month suddenly announced that support for some versions of Windows 10 would last 30 months. Here's how that decision shakes out for users.

hand at keyboard with Windows logo

Microsoft on Sept. 5 upended Windows 10 support. Again.

In February, it added six months to the usual 18 for each twice-annual feature upgrade, but declined to say whether the deal would be permanent or just a stopgap. Three months later, it became clear it was the latter when Microsoft said it wouldn't offer the same to April's upgrade.

Apparently on a mission to confuse customers, Microsoft this month backtracked and suddenly announced that support for Windows 10 would last 30 months. Hosannas were sung.

Of course, there had to be a catch or two; those hallelujahs fell silent.

We're here to explain the catches and answer other questions about the latest head-spinning turn in Windows 10.

What's happening to Windows 10 support this time?

Microsoft has changed how long it supports some editions. And not for the first time.

If you're running Windows 10 Home, Windows 10 Pro or Windows 10 Pro Workstation, the support calendar stays the same. But for customers running Windows 10 Enterprise or Windows 10 Education - and the former is what Microsoft has pressed all businesses to adopt - the schedule has again been redrawn.

What's new this time for Windows 10 Enterprise and Education?

Microsoft gave its most important customers, whether commercial or academic, an extra 12 months of support for each already-issued Windows 10 feature upgrade.

Rather than halt security and non-security updates to Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education versions 1607, 1703, 1709 and 1803 - the upgrades issued from August 2016 through April 2018 - after 18 months, Microsoft will instead provide 30 months of support for those versions.

The 30 months of support decision takes effect immediately.

This sounds so familiar. Weren't those versions getting extra support already?

Yes, yes they were.

In February, Microsoft granted users running Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education six extra months of support for versions 1607, 1703 and 1709. Then, the company said that the extension was because while "many customers have made significant progress in moving to Windows as a service ... some customers have requested an extension to the standard 18 months of support for Windows 10 releases."

Microsoft acknowledged that enterprise customers continued to resist Windows 10's rapid release tempo.

Although Microsoft bumped support from 18 to 24 months for the 2016-2017 feature upgrades, it did not make permanent the longer timespan. Instead, in May the Redmond, Wash. company quietly ended the extension as of Windows 10 1803, the April 2018 upgrade dubbed, wait for it, "Windows 10 April 2018 Update."

What Microsoft giveth, Microsoft taketh away. And then giveth again.

Is this extension permanent?

From all evidence, yes. Or as permanent as Microsoft ever makes anything. In other words, until it changes its mind again.

"All future feature updates of Windows 10 Enterprise and Education editions with a targeted release month of September (starting with 1809) will be supported for 30 months from their release date," a Microsoft executive said while announcing the extension and other changes to support policies.

Windows 10 1809 will start shipping in the next few weeks.

Huh? What's Microsoft mean by 'targeted release month of September?'

Nothing about Windows' support can be straight-forward, it seems.

Of the two Windows 10 feature upgrades annually - one tagged as xx03, the other as xx09 in Microsoft's yymm labeling format - only the fall upgrade is worthy of 30 months of support. The spring upgrade, the one that's been released the past two Aprils, will be stuck with the shorter 18 months.

"All future feature updates of Windows 10 Enterprise and Education editions with a targeted release month of March (starting with 1903) will continue to be supported for 18 months from their release date," Microsoft confirmed.

What's special about the September feature upgrade that it gets two-and-a-half years of support?

Good question. And one Microsoft didn't answer. The best reason Computerworld can think of as to why Microsoft favors the fall upgrade is because it's ... here. Or almost here.

What differences, if any, are there between the extended support - of 6 months - that Microsoft offered earlier and this new 18-month extension?

You have a good memory. Or a sharp eye.

When Microsoft unveiled the six-month addendum, it told Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education customers that the extension would provide security fixes only, and then just for those vulnerabilities rated "critical" or "important," the top two rankings in the four-step system.

There were no such caveats with the latest support expansion, implying that the 12 months of added updates will be just like the 18 preceding months, and include all security patches as well as non-security bug fixes.

We run Windows 10 Pro on some systems. Anything for that edition?

Nothing new, no.

"All feature releases of Windows 10 Home (and) Windows 10 Pro ... will continue to be supported for 18 months (this applies to feature updates targeting both March and September)," Microsoft said.

As Gartner Research opined more than two months ago, Windows 10 Pro - the OS edition that normally comes pre-installed on PCs that businesses order from computer makers - is a dead end for enterprises. Microsoft's refusal to extend support for Windows 10 Pro not only proved Gartner's point, but made one of its analyst prescient in hindsight.

"(We) predict that Microsoft will continue positioning Windows (10) Pro as a release that is not appropriate for enterprises by reducing ... support and limiting access to enterprise management features," wrote Stephen Kleynhans, a research vice president at Gartner, in a report published earlier this year.

I'm confused by the latest support shuffle. Can you just give me the retirement dates for the various feature upgrades?

You betcha.

Windows 10 end of support dates IDG/Gregg Keizer

Why did Microsoft add support to Windows 10 Enterprise and Education?

Because 18 months was too short a stretch for the company's most-important customers.

"While many customers ... have shifted to a modern desktop and are using the semi-annual channel to take updates regularly with great success, we've also heard feedback from some of you that you need more time and flexibility in the Windows 10 update cycle," asserted Jared Spataro, the top marketing exec for Office and Windows, in a Sept. 6 post to a company blog.

Spataro's explanation was almost identical to what Microsoft said in February, when the company last redid Windows 10 Enterprise support, boosting it from 18 months to 24. "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," Bernardo Caldas, Windows' general manager, said on Feb. 1.

That's what Microsoft said, sure. But what's the real reason?

"Need more time" was the real reason.

Microsoft's sin was one of omission: that the support extension was, in fact, an admission that the rapid release model had, if not failed entirely, then failed to convince the crucial customers - enterprises first and foremost - that there was something in it for them worth the Sisyphean task of lather-rinse-repeat upgrading.

Enterprises looked at the model, even tried it, and balked. Then rebelled. No, they weren't going to refresh Windows every four months, as Microsoft proposed prior to 10's launch. And no, they weren't going to refresh every six months, either.

How will the new, longer support spans change the way businesses manage Windows 10?

It's a bit early to know that, frankly. But out the gate, it's obvious that organizations won't have to upgrade as often.

As Computerworld has pointed out before, 18 months of support made it very difficult to skip a feature upgrade unless a customer was either very agile or willing to risk leaving systems unpatched. Bottom line: Firms were forced to upgrade every six months.

When Microsoft added six months to the schedule, stretching support to 24 months for version 1617, 1703 and 1709, the company made it possible for enterprises to deploy every other upgrade. A firm's IT department could deploy an upgrade, say 1703, shortly after that upgrade's debut (June 2017, for instance), leave it be for 17 months (until November 2018) and still be confident that the roll-out of 1809 could be completed in the next seven months. Version 1709? Skipped.

Thirty months will give enterprises even more flexibility in what versions are deployed. (Keep an eye out for an upcoming Computerworld look at exactly how the new support calendar can be used to bypass multiple versions.)

Will this be the last change Microsoft makes to Windows 10's support policy?

If we were the betting kind, we'd bet no.

For one thing, the clear preference for fall feature upgrades over those slated for the spring hints at a future when just one is issued annually. Even now, the latter seems like an upgrade appendix; it's there, but what good is it?

Microsoft seemed to get in on the act, too. When Spataro relayed that spring upgrades would receive only 18 months of support, it came off sounding like the decision to retain them was just for appearance' sake. "This maintains the semi-annual update cadence as our north star and retains the option for customers that want to update twice a year," Spataro said.

Computerworld would not be surprised if Microsoft soon eliminated the spring upgrades and settled on a once-a-year schedule.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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