Microsoft caused a minor ripple in the IT industry recently, when it posted a notice on its support website reminding customers that several key products will lose mainstream support early next year, including Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008.
Coming as this did after the final cut-off of all support for Windows XP earlier this year, the revelation made it look as if the options open to Windows users are rapidly disappearing. Was Microsoft forcing users to upgrade to Windows 8? Should the firm amend its product lifecycle to provide longer support for the most popular products?
Of course, the fact that Windows 7 and other products such as Windows Server 2008 are reaching the end of mainstream support should be nothing new to Microsoft’s business customers, as its support lifecycle policy has been public knowledge since it was formally set in stone over 10 years ago.
This clearly states that Microsoft will offer a minimum of 10 years of support for Business and Developer products, with mainstream support offered for five years (or for two years after the release of a successor product, whichever is longer).
In fact, Microsoft is being slightly generous with the dates, since Windows 7 was made generally available on 22 October 2009, which means customers are actually getting just over five years of mainstream support when this ends on January 13 next year.
So what does this mean for Windows 7 users? Not much, really. From January, the platform will enter the extended support phase of its lifecycle, during which Microsoft will still deliver free security fixes for the platform. What the firm will not do is fix any non-security related bugs in the software, nor add any additional features.
However, as happened with Windows XP five years ago, Microsoft will from January find itself in the peculiar position of no longer offering mainstream support for its most popular product: according to statistics from Net Applications, Windows 7 currently has a 50.55 percent share of the entire operating system market.
For many of Microsoft’s business customers, this may be exasperating, as we pointed out earlier this week, as many of them will still be in the process of migrating onto Windows 7 from earlier versions of the operating system.
Now, those customers have just been given a wake-up call that Windows 7 has only another five years or so of life left in it before it hits its own cut-off date at the start of 2020, which means that they will need to start planning to migrate away from Windows 7 within a year or two.
Given the slow-motion train wreck that many corporate migrations from XP have turned out to be, businesses must be dreading this further migration looming on the horizon, however far off it may seem at the moment.
The consolation for customers is that a migration from Windows 7 to Windows 8 or above is likely to prove much less of a headache, at least if Microsoft can be believed. Whether Microsoft customers will want to make such a move, given the lukewarm reception that has greeted Windows 8, remains to be seen.
At this point, many users may be wondering why Microsoft doesn’t just extend mainstream support for Windows 7, as the firm did with Windows XP. This was only withdrawn in 2009, nearly eight years after the platform was released.
Indeed, with Windows 7 regarded as “the new XP” and Windows 8 as “the new Windows Vista”, history would seem to be repeating itself nearly a decade after Vista’s release.
Some industry observers have speculated that the software giant will end up doing this, but a lot may depend upon the uptake of Windows 8.1, and Microsoft has only a few months in which to make up its mind before Windows 7’s mainstream support comes to an end.
Continuing to offer free support for older platforms is also a drain on resources, which is why Microsoft eventually pulled the plug on XP, and why it announced earlier this year that users need to be on the most recent release of its latest platform – the Windows 8.1 Update – in order to receive future security fixes.
The most likely course of action for most organisations as well as individual end users will be to simply wait and see how Windows 9 is shaping up, and decide on their future strategy from there. By that point, Microsoft may have learned the lessons of Windows 8 and put back all the features that users want in a desktop operating system.
There’s also the fact that the IT industry is now at a crossroads, where greater mobility and an increased prevalence of cloud-based services is leading many to re-evaluate whether they need to have Windows on client-side devices at all for much longer. So far, Windows PCs have proved too flexible and versatile to do without, but there is no guarantee that this will remain the case by 2020.