Microsoft's Skylake Surprise May Help More than Hurt Early Adopters
From dedicated support to hardware/software deals, the limited OS support for upcoming Skylake line might actually benefit those looking to get in early.
For decades, the relationship between Microsoft and PC makers was straightforward and well-defined. OEMs built the hardware. Microsoft made the software. And with a few rare exceptions, neither side crossed that line.
That all changed in 2012, with Microsoft's surprise announcement that it was entering the hardware business with the Surface line of tablet PCs.
To say relations between the two groups have been tense ever since is like saying the Hatfields and McCoys had unresolved anger issues. Corporate customers can sometimes feel like they're caught in the crossfire.
But as it turns out, Microsoft's focus on hardware turned out to be the first step in a larger plan, one designed to force its hardware partners to step up their game. It's the experience that matters, and that means building those hardware-software combinations together, in an iterative and cooperative process, rather than bolting the two pieces together and hoping for the best.
Recently, in a classic Friday-afternoon "news dump," Microsoft announced another big step in its quest to improve the overall PC experience. As "new generations of silicon" are introduced, Microsoft said, "they will require the latest Windows platform at that time for support." In a change of longstanding support policies, pre-Windows 10 OSes won't be supported on new hardware.
(Of course, "unsupported" doesn't mean "forcibly disabled." You'll be able to install your older OS on new hardware; just don't expect sympathy -- or patches -- if you discover the hard way that installing Windows 7 on your shiny new hardware causes your line-of-business apps to crash or hang.)
The unexpected move means new PCs with Intel 6th-generation Core processors (code-named "Skylake") that have been selling since last September might come with an unpleasant surprise for early adopters. The new rules say "specific new Skylake devices" will be supported to run Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, but only until July 17, 2017. After that, you're expected to upgrade to Windows 10.
That's an unusually early end date, given the underlying OSes will continue to be supported until 2020 (Windows 7) and 2023 (Windows 8.1).
Troubling as it seems, it also makes sense. The first generation of Skylake-based devices, including Microsoft's own Surface Book, have been plagued with more than their share of teething problems. Six months after the first systems shipped, Microsoft and its OEMs are still dealing with display glitches, devices that disappear without notice and force an untimely reboot, and persistent problems with sleep and resume.
A conspiracy theorist might look at this new support policy and see it as an olive branch to OEMs, many of whom are tearing their hair out trying to engineer their way around these pesky hardware and software problems. The last thing they want on their to-do list is an extra round of fixing and testing for older OSes that were architected in a completely different era. And Microsoft's move lets them avoid that work while not having to take the blame.
But it's also a smart move on Microsoft's part, which gets to reward cooperative OEMs by adding them to a new list of officially supported devices that get "special testing to help future proof customers' investments."
So in the wake of these new hardware rules, how do you change your hardware-buying behavior?
For starters, you can anticipate some unexpected bargains in systems based on the older Haswell and Broadwell CPU families over the next year or two. Those architectures will work just fine with Windows 10, albeit without the latest bells and whistles, but they'll also have the fewest problems with older Windows versions.
Next, pay attention to systems on the new list of supported Skylake devices. For every machine on that list (more than 100 so far, and certain to grow), the manufacturers have committed to "additional testing, regular validation of Windows Updates, and publishing drivers and firmware for Windows 10 on Windows Update." That's an insurance policy for the future.
And, finally, insist on a great PC experience for your next wave of hardware purchases. That, more than price or specs, is what's really going to define the next generation of computing.
Ed Bott is a Microsoft MVP and an award-winning tech journalist who has covered Microsoft for 25 years. He's written numerous books on Windows and Office, including the best-selling "Inside Out" series from Microsoft Press. Bott delivers outspoken advice on a wide range of technology topics at his ZDNet blog, "The Ed Bott Report."