The discovery last week that millions of PCs that upgraded to Windows 10 might be cut off from support much earlier than expected is one unexpected consequence of Microsoft’s ongoing shift to Windows as a Service.
Under the old model it was pretty easy to understand where you stood with Windows, because Microsoft has long published the dates after which it stops supporting various versions of its software.
“Every Windows product has a lifecycle. The lifecycle begins when a product is released and ends when it’s no longer supported. Knowing key dates in this lifecycle helps you make informed decisions about when to upgrade or make other changes to your software,” says Microsoft.
For example, Windows 7 reaches the end of extended support in January 2020: after that you don’t get any more security updates (so mark your diaries now).
Sure, users might grumble that their favourite software is going out-of-support. They might even stick with old version of Windows rather than upgrade. But it was pretty clear to everyone what was happening – and when.
With Windows 10 it’s all a little different.
Windows 10, like earlier versions of Windows does still have an end of support date, in October 2020, and an end of extended support date, way off in October 2025.
But Windows 10 is delivered as ‘Windows as a Service’, which makes everything a bit more complicated. More than previous versions of Windows it is evolving all the time, with minor updates every month and a major update every six months.
For many users this is great, because it means a steady stream of updates and new features to keep their PC delivering something new.
Some PCs, upgraded to Windows 10 less than two years ago, were being blocked from updating to the Windows 10 Creators Update. This was, Microsoft said, because the devices were powered by Intel’s Clover Trail processors – which Intel no longer supported. Millions of these PCs were sold in 2013 and 2014.
But even worse, because of the way Windows as a service works, these devices would also stop getting security updates early of next year.
Microsoft has been clear that something like this could happen, as its Windows lifecycle page notes: “A device may not be able to receive updates if the device hardware is incompatible, lacking current drivers, or otherwise outside of the Original Equipment Manufacturer’s (OEM) support period.”
But the Clover Trail situation was the first time most people had actually realized that such a thing could happen.
Microsoft argues that if hardware makers stop supporting a device or key components, or stop updating drivers, then Windows 10 might not work well. But it has also now said that it will provide security updates for these PCs until 2023, which is absolutely the right thing to do.
One big question is whether there will be any more scenarios like this cropping up further down the line with out-of-support hardware. After all, few consumers or businesses will have a clue the date that hardware vendors will stop supporting the processors (or other components) inside their PCs.
No one expects their PC to work forever. Software moves on and hardware can’t keep up in the same way.
And it is true that a similar scenario happens all the time with smartphones, where the idea of free, rolling OS upgrades has been standard for some time. Often when there is a new version of Android or iOS some old hardware just doesn’t make the grade and doesn’t get the upgrade (Apple handles this better than the fragmented Android ecosystem.) But what customers really want is certainty.
The move to Windows as a service should have many benefits for PC users, and for Microsoft itself, which has been very keen for PC users to shift on to Windows 10. But with the move to Windows as a service what PC users will expect and what they will get will also change. Microsoft should be clear about how the experience will evolve.
ZDNet’s Monday Morning Opener
The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet’s global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.
Previously on Monday Morning Opener: