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Microsoft Altering Windows Support Policies Based on New Hardware

Microsoft's product lifecycle support policies for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 could vary somewhat, based on a machine's underlying hardware and chip technologies.

Terry Myerson, executive vice president for Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group, explained in an announcement today that the new chip technologies being released by Microsoft's hardware partners, such as AMD, Intel, Nvidia and Qualcomm, will have an effect on those Windows product lifecycles. PC maker improvements also could have an effect.

Myerson said he was sharing some clarifications for "enterprise customers on Windows 10 and Windows 7 and Windows 8.1" regarding those potential policy effects.

He specifically pointed to policy changes associated with Intel's Core processors with Intel Skylake technology. However, Myerson left open the suggestion that other chip-maker innovations also could affect Microsoft's Windows support policies. Moreover, he specifically stated that Windows 10 would be the only operating system supporting "Intel's upcoming 'Kaby Lake' silicon, Qualcomm's upcoming '8996' silicon, and AMD's upcoming 'Bristol Ridge' silicon."

Intel Skylake-based PCs can be purchased today. Any PCs advertised as running sixth-generation Intel Core processors contain Skylake chips. Skylake technology, which promises performance and power-efficiency benefits, is used in familiar Intel processor brands, including Xeon, Pentium and Celeron. Intel provides a list of chips using Skylake at this page.

Look for Microsoft's List
Next week, Microsoft plans to provide its own list of new Intel Skylake devices that will be capable of running Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, Myerson said. He offered an explanation why such a list will be needed. For instance, Windows 7 devices likely will have servicing "regressions" when using the new hardware technologies:

Windows 7 was designed nearly 10 years ago before any x86/x64 SOCs existed. 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 WiFi, graphics, security, and more. As partners make customizations to legacy device drivers, services, and firmware settings, customers are likely to see regressions with Windows 7 ongoing servicing.

Myerson affirmed the current lifecycle support policies for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. Those products are supported through Jan. 14, 2020 and Jan. 10, 2013, respectively, as published in Microsoft's "Windows lifecycle fact sheet." But that's where things get complicated.

Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 will only be supported for devices on Microsoft's coming list through July 17, 2017. After that date, those machines would have to be upgraded to Windows 10 to continue to be supported by Microsoft. A "supported" Windows version means that the OS continues to get hotfixes and security updates from Microsoft.

However, Microsoft still plans to issue critical security updates for those systems after July 17, 2017, provided that Windows reliability "on other devices" isn't compromised. That's a somewhat murky area, it seems, but a Microsoft spokesperson clarified that "Microsoft will not release the updates if they risk the reliability or compatibility of the Windows 7/8.1 platform."

Moreover, no nonsecurity updates will be released after that July 17, 2017 date for such Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 devices. "Non-security updates will not be provided after July 17, 2017," the spokesperson confirmed.

New Support Policy Changes
Here are the major policy changes, as listed in Microsoft's announcement:

  • Windows 7 will continue to be supported for security, reliability, and compatibility through January 14, 2020 on previous generation silicon. Windows 8.1 will receive the same support through January 10, 2023. This includes most of the devices available for purchase today by consumers or enterprises.
  • Going forward, as new silicon generations are introduced, they will require the latest Windows platform at that time for support. This enables us to focus on deep integration between Windows and the silicon, while maintaining maximum reliability and compatibility with previous generations of platform and silicon. For example, Windows 10 will be the only supported Windows platform on Intel's upcoming "Kaby Lake" silicon, Qualcomm's upcoming "8996" silicon, and AMD's upcoming "Bristol Ridge" silicon.
  • Through July 17, 2017, Skylake devices on the supported list will also be supported with Windows 7 and 8.1. During the 18-month support period, these systems should be upgraded to Windows 10 to continue receiving support after the period ends. After July 2017, the most critical Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 security updates will be addressed for these configurations, and will be released if the update does not risk the reliability or compatibility of the Windows 7/8.1 platform on other devices.

Those bullet points are somewhat contradictory, taken altogether. However, the gist seems to be that organizations will have to check Microsoft's forthcoming list of supported technologies for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 when making plans to purchase new PCs if they want to run those older Windows operating systems on the newer hardware. Alternatively, they'll have to plan upgrades to Windows 10 on that new hardware, and there will be a July 2017 deadline to carry out those upgrades.

Possibly, this new policy change will affect organizations that plan to exercise downgrade rights on new Windows 10 PCs. There might be a technical snag to performing such downgrades.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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