Is Microsoft artificially blocking newer PCs running Windows 7 and 8.1 from receiving updates?
The consensus is 'yes', but opinions on Microsoft's reasons for doing so range from 'protecting users' to 'forcing upgrades to Windows 10'.
The block has even prompted some users to call for a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft, for cutting off updates to Windows 8.1 "eight months before the end of mainstream support".
In March, Microsoft began blocking updates on Windows 7 and 8.1 PCs running on newer Intel and AMD processors, but debate over why Microsoft was doing so was reignited by an unofficial patch last week.
The workaround allows users of Windows 7 and 8.1 on newer machines to continue receiving updates, by evading a Windows check to detect which generation of CPU the PC is using.
For some, the fact the block could be circumvented reinforces the argument that Microsoft has decided to cut off updates, rather than being forced to do so for technical reasons.
"Are Microsoft artificially blocking updates for new PCs? I would say most definitely," said Roy Castleman, owner of London-based Prosyn, which provides IT support for organizations of all sizes.
Suspicions of Microsoft's motives for blocking the update have been compounded by the firm's recommendation that those affected should upgrade to Windows 10.
"I believe that Microsoft is struggling to convince people that the constant upgrade and change of OSes is a requirement. Let's face it, while the multiple features that Windows 10 provides are useful in the home environment, most companies do not need any of these new features," said Castleman.
Microsoft maintains that businesses are switching to Windows 10 at a faster rate than Windows 7, driven by security enhancements such as Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection's ability to detect and respond to network attacks. This claim gained some support from analyst house Gartner, which found that 85 percent of the 1,000 businesses it surveyed are planning to upgrade this year, with security enhancements the biggest motivating factor.
However, the move to block updates is contentious, because a number of businesses rely on software that is not supported by newer operating systems, or are already set up to support Windows 7, making the upgrade to Windows 10 a difficult proposition.
"The forced changes to a new OS are costly. They take time to train staff and they decrease productivity for a period," said Castleman.
For businesses that can't upgrade, Microsoft has released a list of new Intel Skylake PCs that companies can buy, which will continue to get updates for Windows 7 and 8.1. Initially, Microsoft said Windows 7 and 8.1 systems running on Skylake processors also wouldn't receive updates, but later backtracked, citing the need to give business more time to upgrade.
The block now only affects PCs running on Intel Kaby Lake, AMD Ryzen Bristol Ridge, Qualcomm 8996 or newer processors.
Gartner research VP Steve Kleynhans points out that Microsoft never said the latest Windows updates wouldn't work on Windows 7/8.1 systems running on newer processors, so a third party re-enabling updates on these systems is not surprising.
"Of course the block is artificial, but it is pre-emptive. The issue is that Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 are unsupported with the new processors, not that they don't work," he said.
"As Microsoft creates new fixes for Windows 7 and 8.1 it won't be testing them on those processors. Just because it works right now doesn't mean it will keep working with future fixes.
"Could Microsoft keep it working? Yes, but Windows 7 is already out of mainstream support, and Windows 8.1 has really small market penetration in enterprises.
"Microsoft doesn't want to divert the resources it would take to properly test out all the variations that would exist away from more important areas."
The rationale for no longer testing old OSes on newer hardware is that it is becoming increasingly complicated to do so, according to Microsoft.
"Windows 7 was designed nearly 10 years ago before any x86/x64 SOCs existed," Terry Myerson, EVP of Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group, said in a blogpost last year.
"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 Wi-Fi, graphics, security, and more."
Gartner's Kleynhans has sympathy with the argument that the complexity of continuing to support these processors in older systems is becoming untenable.
"New processors today contain much more of the total logic that makes up a PC. They are much more integrated.
"There are a ton of drivers associated with the processor, in particular around UEFI and boot-loading processes, and the whole thing is kind of a jenga tower just waiting to collapse."
The issue that vexes some Windows users is whether Microsoft has the right to abandon its longstanding commitment to support Windows for 10 years after release, regardless of the hardware it runs on.
Questioning how support can be removed before the end of either mainstream or extended support for Windows 8.1, GitHub user Levicki said: "I have read the Software License Agreement and nowhere does it say that they have the right to revoke support earlier like this.
"All this is setting a very bad precedent in software and hardware industry, and I really hope some lawyer will pick this up and start a class action. All three vendors deserve to be crucified for this."
Microsoft insists that the move to withdraw support, first flagged up in January 2016, will lead to a better Windows in the long run.
"As new silicon generations are introduced, they will require the latest Windows platform at that time for support," said a Microsoft spokesperson.
"This enables us to focus on deep integration between Windows and the silicon."
More on Windows 7 upgrades
- Microsoft begins blocking updates for older Windows versions on newer hardware (ZDNet)
- Microsoft to end support for Windows 7 and 8 on new PC hardware
- Microsoft's Windows 7 support U-turn: Now new Skylake PCs get security patches until 2020
- Next generation processors will require Microsoft Windows 10
- If Windows 7's security is so outdated, why doesn't Microsoft make it as good as Windows 10's?
Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.