In-Depth

Analysts Upbeat on Microsoft's Latest Windows and Office Servicing Changes

Microsoft has responded to customer feedback by organizations on the unbearable pace of its new feature update releases.

Microsoft's new plans to extend Office ProPlus and Windows 10 servicing, announced earlier this week, got largely positive mentions by some analysts.

To recap, on September 6, Microsoft described three main changes to its support programs with the aim of making it easier for organizations to keep pace with Microsoft's faster deliveries of new Windows 10 operating system features and Office features. First, changes were announced with regard to Windows 10 support and Office 365 ProPlus support. Second, a new Windows 7 Extended Security Updates program was announced, adding three extra years of support, but at a cost. And lastly, Microsoft indicated that Office 365 service connections with the perpetual-license Office 2016 product were getting a three-year extension.

While organizations may find these latest Windows 10 and Office support changes to be a good thing, the overall experience has perhaps been a bumpy ride. Microsoft has altered its support models on a dizzyingly frequent basis.

Jim Gaynor, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent consultancy and research firm in Kirkland, Wash., offered the following thumbnail sketch of such changes in a Twitter post:

In the last 18 months, support for Microsoft client or server OS has changed at least 5 times. Less than 4 months avg between changes. While it presents ample opportunity for my colleagues and I to ply our trade, it's not good for customers. Want to damage trust? This is how.

Windows 10 Servicing Changes
On the Windows 10 side, Microsoft added a new 30-month support lifecycle option for organizations that follow the semiannual channel (SAC) Windows 10 update model. Under the SAC model, new versions of Windows 10 arrive twice per year, approximately in March and September. However, the new 30-month support lifecycle option is just available to users of the Windows 10 Enterprise and Education editions with volume licensing agreements. Moreover, these users must follow Microsoft's September-targeted channel releases to get on this 30-month lifecycle.

Microsoft's 30-month SAC support extension came into effect retroactively for all supported Windows 10 Enterprise and Education editions going back to Windows 10 version 1607. This month, Microsoft published a revised "Windows Lifecycle Fact Sheet" document. It shows the revised support dates, even for older Windows 10 versions. For instance, Windows 10 version 1607, first released on Aug. 2, 2016, is now supported until April 9, 2019 for Enterprise and Education edition users.

In contrast, Microsoft did not announce any support changes for Windows 10 Pro edition users. They still just have 18 months of support until they must move to the next Windows 10 version. Windows 10 Pro users need to make such moves to stay current and keep getting future security updates.

Windows 10 Home edition users didn't get any new support policy changes either from Microsoft. While they technically have 18 months of support between Windows 10 versions, they don't have any reasonable way to defer new OS feature updates. Updates get delivered whenever Microsoft's telemetry and artificial intelligence "decides" that their machines are ready for a new OS version.

Analyst Views
Microsoft's servicing changes for Windows 10 and Office have frequently shifted, but the September 6 announcements were seen by analysts in a largely positive light.

"We think this is really positive," said Stephen Kleynhans, research vice president at research and consulting firm Gartner Inc., in a Thursday phone call. "This is a reflection that Microsoft has to respond to what customers have been saying and the fact is that customers have been pushing back on the update cadence with Windows 10. It's been a sticking point for a lot of organizations."

Kleynhans, who specializes on end-user computing issues for organizations at Gartner, noted that organizations haven't been able to keep up with Microsoft's updates and feel that they were arriving too quickly. Moreover, Microsoft wasn't affording sufficient flexibility to deal with them. The addition of the 30-month SAC option for Enterprise and Education edition Windows 10 users will help remove some of the blockers for organizations, he added.

"By moving to a 30-month window, by establishing one of the updates a year as being the sort of blessed enterprise update, it gives customers a roadmap," Kleynhans said. "You can time the delivery and deployment of that update for any time over the following 12 months and you can do your work over the next 12 months and not have to worry about being under the gun to get it done quickly. And then come back and do the whole process again next year. It just takes away a lot of the pressure and a lot of the disruption factor that had existed with the existing model. And it gives customers a pointer that this is the way you should work."

Kleynhans said that Microsoft's September 6 announcement of the Windows 10 support changes wasn't a surprise. "We knew this was coming," he said, but, it's also the most important change to the program. "And I think customers are going to respond very positively to it," he added, since it addresses the biggest issues that customers currently have.

Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, described Microsoft's Windows 10 servicing changes as "significant" for organizations. They now have three servicing and support levels available, outside the long-term servicing channel option, which Microsoft only advocates for organizations with devices that can't tolerate frequent OS changes.

Miller offered the following summary of those three options in a Thursday e-mail:

  • Windows 10 Home: which offers no option to defer feature updates, and the tradition of 18 months of support for all feature updates.
  • Windows 10 Pro (and Pro-like editions): which offer deferral, and 18 months of support for all feature updates. Pro customers could/can basically skip one feature update, but are basically obligated to deploy the one the year after they originally did, to stay within support windows.
  • Windows 10 Enterprise and Education: which offer the same deferral options as Pro, and add this new "September option." This is interesting in that it lets customers sit out for three SAC feature updates in total, or one "September Feature Update." Due to the deferral timeframe most have in place, and the tight 30-month window, customers still can't skip two September Feature Updates, and most are not likely to iterate between March and September feature update cadences.

"Because of the rhythm in which the September updates arrive, you gain a bit, but you're still effectively obligated to deploy every other September update to stay within support boundaries," he summarized.

Miller also saw some perks for organizations using Windows Server 2016 and Windows 8.1.

"I think the extension of support for Office 365 ProPlus on Windows Server 2016 is one of the most significant pieces of news here," he explained. "Organizations that want to run Office 365 technology on their RDS [Remote Desktop Services] farms didn't have any clear direction in terms of where this technology was going, and were faced with a somewhat unexplainable abbreviated support date. The extension for Windows 8.1 is also a logical extension for customers who invested in Windows 8.1, and gives them time to transition to Windows 10."

The extension of Office 2016 support for connecting with Office 365 services until October 2023 also was a high note in Microsoft's announcement, according to Miller, but Office 2016 will be in "extended" support until October 2025, he noted.

Other Options
The Windows 10 Pro edition didn't get any support love in Microsoft's September 6 announcement. However, it wasn't a surprise, according to Kleynhans:

It's been quite clear for the past couple of years that Microsoft has repositioned the roles of [Windows 10] Pro and Enterprise. Pro is no longer the version for businesses. It is the version for individuals who want to manage their own PCs. If you are in an enterprise, they want you to run Enterprise, and they are pushing and focusing and creating more value around the Enterprise version of the product. And new capabilities that are business focused -- whether it is security or management or analytics or even process like this and policy related -- they're all going to show up on the Enterprise version and not necessarily ever show up on the Pro version. It's just a fundamental changing of how Microsoft sees the roles of those two SKUs, and for Microsoft I think this is just part of encouraging customers down the Microsoft 365 route, and we're going to continue to see more of this.

The option to use the long-term servicing channel is out for many organizations, but the 30-month Windows 10 SAC option could prove to be a viable alternative, according to Kleynhans.

"Now, long-term servicing had a bunch of issues," Kleynhans said. "It didn't support Office 365 for one. It didn't support new hardware and had all kinds of constraints around its core. And part of that was that it's not frozen just for a couple of years -- it's frozen for 10 years. That's a very long time and they [Microsoft] had to put a lot of constraints on it. Some people have a need to have something that's a little more frozen but not quite as frozen as long-term servicing."

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