Going forward, Microsoft will no longer offer this kind of long-term support for previous operating systems, and Intel Skylake customers will be the first to be impacted by the change. According to Microsoft’s Terry Myerson, Windows 7 and 8.1 were designed long before modern x86 SoCs were built. It’s more difficult to create Windows 7 and 8.1 drivers for modern x86 SoCs as a result, and attempting to integrate support for specific capabilities into these operating systems “would introduce churn into the Windows 7 code base, and would break this commitment [to support the older operating systems].”
Microsoft has promised to release a list of exactly which Intel Skylake products from specific OEMs will be supported on Windows 7 and 8.1 at some point this week.
Through July 17, 2017, Skylake devices on the supported list will also be supported with Windows 7 and 8.1. During the 18-month support period, these systems should be upgraded to Windows 10 to continue receiving support after the period ends. After July 2017, the most critical Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 security updates will be addressed for these configurations, and will be released if the update does not risk the reliability or compatibility of the Windows 7/8.1 platform on other devices.
The entire point of this extended 18 month stay of execution is to give enterprise business customers time to get ready to deploy Windows 10.
Future hardware will be Windows 10-only
If you have older, pre-Skylake hardware, you’re free to continue using Windows 7 or 8.1 for as long as you like — but don’t count on ever upgrading your hardware if you want to keep your operating system. Again, here’s Myerson:
Going forward, as new silicon generations are introduced, they will require the latest Windows platform at that time for support. This enables us to focus on deep integration between Windows and the silicon, while maintaining maximum reliability and compatibility with previous generations of platform and silicon. For example, Windows 10 will be the only supported Windows platform on Intel’s upcoming “Kaby Lake” silicon, Qualcomm’s upcoming “8996” silicon, and AMD’s upcoming “Bristol Ridge” silicon.
Microsoft, in other words, has no plans to support newer SoCs on older versions of Windows. Broadwell and Carrizo users won’t face the short 18-month support window that Skylake users are stuck with, but it looks like enterprise customers will no longer have the option (via Software Assurance) to downgrade to previous versions of Windows when purchasing new equipment.
How much will this matter?
The big question here is how much “official support” actually means to the end-user. There’s no way to answer this until people start trying to use unsupported hardware on older operating systems, but my gut feeling is that it’s going to matter quite a bit.
If, for example, Intel and AMD don’t release Windows 7 / 8.1-compatible video drivers for their next-generation SoCs, users who buy those parts wouldn’t be able to use them with older operating systems. Now, extend that idea to USB 3.1 support, advanced power management, or any multi-threading changes that either company might introduce that required support from Microsoft. (Both Intel’s Hyper-Threading and AMD’s multi-threading approach with Bulldozer required service packs and patches in order to function at peak effectiveness.)
Users have found ways to install Microsoft operating systems on supposedly unsupported hardware for years, and I have no doubt that this will continue to occur, but actually leveraging the capabilities of that hardware could become quite difficult.
Furthermore, it’s unlikely that many companies will bother to continue to offer driver support, once Microsoft stops supporting older operating systems on newer hardware. Discrete video cards will probably ship with multi-OS support for the next few years, and companies like Marvell or Realtek that have onboard solutions on multiple generations of hardware will still offer some compatibility, as well. Long-term, however, the trend is clear: Microsoft intends to move the entire Windows ecosystem to Windows 10, and those who prefer older versions of the operating system will either have to make do with current hardware or switch to Apple or Linux.