Faster Windows Cycle Brings Subtle Changes to Microsoft Support Policies

The traditional Windows release cycle of once every three years -- with a service pack or two thrown in -- became mostly old news last year, when Microsoft switched to annual product releases.

With the faster product release cycle, the pace of update releases has also changed. Update release cycles now depend on the product; updates to Exchange Server are released every quarter, updates to SharePoint Server every month, and updates to Yammer every week. Updates used to be a collection of fixes for software flaws, rather than delivering new features, but Microsoft seems to have changed that tradition, as well.

While Microsoft's software releases have accelerated in the last year, its product lifecycle support schedule seems to have remained the same, more or less. However, not all customers have been affected similarly. In particular, volume licensees using the Enterprise edition of Windows 8 without Software Assurance (SA) coverage seem to have received the short end of the stick.

Microsoft's Product Support Lifecycle
Microsoft's support lifecycle for its enterprise products consists of two five-year phases: a "mainstream support" phase and an "extended support" phase. The end of extended support can be a crucial marker for organizations since Microsoft no longer issues security patches when extended support comes to an end. Windows XP is the classic case, with many organizations opting to move to Windows 7 after Windows XP lost its extended support back in April.

Many IT pros may have planned their operations, in part, based on Microsoft's fairly predictable product lifecycle support timelines. However, Windows 8 seems to have mixed things up. Windows 8 has been one of the more volatile products coming out of Microsoft's new agile approach to software building.

Windows 8 was released in October 2012. One year later, in October 2013, Microsoft released Windows 8.1, which added some new features. Six months later, in April 2014, Microsoft released Windows 8.1 Update via the Windows Update service with still more new features. Windows 8.1 Update had a brand-new policy, an install deadline, which was June 10 for consumers and Aug. 12 for organizations. However, the deadlines applied only to users of Windows 8.1, not Windows 8.

Four months later, on Aug. 12, Microsoft released the "August Update" to the Windows 8.1 Update, adding some minor new features. The August Update came with no install deadline specified by Microsoft.

Subtle Policy Changes
Throughout Windows 8's many changes, the product lifecycle support policy seemed to remain static. In reality, though, Microsoft did tweak it.

The details are spelled out in a footnote to Windows 8's lifecycle support page. Windows 8's end of extended support is technically Jan. 10, 2023. However, Windows 8 customers have until Jan. 12, 2016 to move to Windows 8.1 or they will risk losing support. It's a peculiar formulation.

In a normal 10-year Microsoft product support scenario, Windows 8 would have had lost its extended support in 2022, not 2016. Microsoft justifies the six-year difference in time by saying that Windows 8.1 essentially was a service pack to Windows 8. This idea is outlined in the "Windows 8.1 Support Lifecycle Policy FAQ," which explains that Microsoft applied "the existing service pack support policy to Windows 8.1," which is why Windows 8 users have just two years to move to Windows 8.1.

Few IT pros may have considered Windows 8.1 to be a service pack to Windows 8, but that seems to be Microsoft's interpretation, based on its FAQ.

And if Windows 8.1 is a service pack to Windows 8, it's unclear why it wasn't made a free upgrade for all of Microsoft's customers. Typically, Microsoft's service packs are free upgrades, and that circumstance was true of Windows 8.1 for all of Microsoft's customers -- except for volume licensing customers using the Windows 8 Enterprise edition without SA coverage. Those users had to pay for Windows 8.1. They also faced the truncated extended support date of Jan. 12, 2016.

Microsoft did describe this policy back in September 2013. Volume licensees with Windows 8 Pro but without SA coverage got Windows 8.1 at no additional cost, but volume licensees with the Windows Enterprise edition and no SA coverage were out of luck and had to pay for Windows 8.1. This seemingly arbitrary policy is still obscure today. For instance, it came up this month as a question in one of Microsoft's forums.

Windows 8 as a Dead End?
Possibly, Microsoft may see its Windows 8 product as a dead end, with Windows 8.1 representing the product lifecycle going forward. However, July data measured by Net Applications show Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 to be nearly equally used, according to Web sampling data. Windows 8 had a 5.92 percent use rate versus 6.56 percent for Windows 8.1.

The truncated extended support date for Windows 8 users does seem to be having some repercussions. For instance, AMD announced this month that it will no longer support Windows 8.0 with its Catalyst 14.6 beta product. That announcement seems very early since Windows 8.0 technically has extended support until Jan. 12, 2016.

AMD's announcement may have been the first of its kind with regard to Windows 8, but it may have been prompted by Microsoft's less-than-traditional interpretation of its product lifecycle in the case of Windows 8.

IT pros may have sat out such complexities associated with Windows 8, sticking with Windows 7 for various reasons. Clearly, though, Microsoft's support policies have changed in subtle ways with Windows 8, and those nuances need to be considered when planning an OS migration and considering future third-party software support. The nuances have also affected Microsoft's Internet Explorer browsers, which used to have product lifecycles strictly tied to the underlying Windows OS. Microsoft recently announced a new policy that truncates browser support after Jan. 12, 2016 for various older IE browsers.

The next Windows release, code-named "Threshold," purportedly will be designed to entice users off older Windows versions. Threshold, which might be "Windows 9" when released, is rumored to be arriving in the spring of 2015, according to veteran Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley, citing unnamed sources. Windows 9 might be a free upgrade, she has suggested. However, Microsoft has said very little about Threshold, so it remains to be seen. And if Windows 9 turns out to be a free upgrade, possibly it might not be free for all.