Millions of personal computers that use Microsoft’s Windows 7 will no longer receive fixes and security patches within less than one year.
Almost a decade after its 2009 initial release, the software giant is stamping “end-of-life” on its popular operating system. But there’s one big problem. For many businesses and individuals around the world, Windows 7 remains a mainstay of their technology environment. Many of those companies that have sunk millions of dollars into software and computers are racing against the clock to upgrade to Windows 10, the newest version of the software.
It can be expensive to upgrade, but there will be a significant cost should companies miss the January 14, 2020, deadline and still require security patches to keep their PCs and networks secure. Big-business procrastinators will still be able to get security patches, but Microsoft will start charging for them – and the price will increase more each year.
This is something of a dilemma for Microsoft, says Mary Jo Foley, who writes the All About Microsoft blog at ZDNet and who has kept a close eye on the company for 30 years.
“Microsoft can and will continue to create security patches for Windows 7, which they will sell,” Foley said in an email interview. “But they would prefer more users be on the latest version of Windows for image, security and customer satisfaction’s sake.”
But not every business will be able to buy the patches, which are aimed at big corporate customers. “Paying isn’t even an option for smaller businesses; only for enterprise users,” Foley said.
How big is the problem? Microsoft doesn’t typically report on the number of machines that still run Windows 7, but it did say last October that Windows 10 had finally passed the 50 percent point in business use.
And Netmarketshare, which tracks operating systems on computers that visit its clients’ websites, showed Windows 10 with a 40.9 percent market share, compared to Windows 7’s 37.9 percent. Windows 8 comes in with a lowly 4.3 percent, while XP laggards are keeping that OS at just under 4 percent.
Microsoft, which would not make anyone available for an interview on this topic, has seen this movie before. When Microsoft released Windows 7 in July 2009, it was designed to replace both Windows Vista, which was disliked by both critics and users, and Windows XP, the version that had been released in 2001.
At the time, XP was not just long in the tooth – it was considered a ripe target for hackers and malware because of numerous security issues. Moving consumers and businesses off XP, many of whom had resisted Vista, was a priority.
The Windows 7 scenario is similar. Windows 8, which was released in late 2012, made big changes to the Windows desktop, most dramatically removing the Start button that had been the primary way users accessed many of the operating system’s features. There was enough resistance that Microsoft brought the Start button back in an update to Windows 8, but it was too late. Windows 7 was the new XP; Windows 8 was the new Vista.
Laura Bellomy, a Houston-based contract change management specialist, says money is the main reason why companies wait until the last minute to make an operating system switch. Moving to a new operating system often requires more powerful hardware, she said, and there are software application issues as well.
“All those custom applications that were designed on Windows 7 won’t necessarily run on Windows 10,” she said, adding those programs must be updated, sometimes at significant cost.
Bellomy, who works with companies to make sure technology changes go smoothly, said one of her clients tried to make the move from Windows 7 to Windows 10, only to run into too many issues. They rolled back to Windows 7, though they have since upgraded some systems, she said.
At a large organization, the process can be a massive undertaking. Rice University has been in the process of upgrading to Windows 10 on its PCs, a project that began that in 2016, a year after the operating system’s release.
Klara Jelinkova, Rice’s vice president for international operations, IT, and chief information officer, said the campus has an even number of Windows PCs and Apple Macintoshes, with a sprinkling of Linux systems thrown in. It’s a complex environment that includes managed computers owned by the university and its staff, along with the systems students and visitors bring to the campus.
“That’s the fundamental nature of the openness of a university,” Jelinkova said.
In most cases, the upgrades to a new operating system are included as Rice replaces aging hardware, she said.
“A new operating system usually has higher hardware requirements,” Jelinkova said. “We don’t want our users getting upgraded on an older machine, the experience is often not good.”
Rice has a Microsoft site license for Windows, meaning the university pays one price for a certain number of installations. Because of that, and that fact that upgrades are tied into a planned hardware replacement cycle, the budgetary hit isn’t severe.
Jelinkova said Rice is about two-thirds of the way through its Windows 7 to 10 transition, and she conceded that not all machines may be upgraded before the deadline. Those PCs that run sophisticated and custom-designed scientific software, for example, may not have updated applications when January rolls around.
“When that happens, we will use network security to isolate those machines that haven’t be upgraded,” she said. “There’s a real vulnerability to having an old machine connected to a network that somebody can hack into.”