Microsoft Needs to Clarify Its Windows 11 Update Policy Before Launch

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Ever since it announced Windows 11, Microsoft has been emphasizing that the OS would only run officially on certain hardware. Redmond often struggles with coherent messaging, as evidenced by both the Windows 11 launch and the 2013 launch of the Xbox One. But there is a specific and particular point that Microsoft needs to clarify, and it needs to clarify it before October 5.

Specifically: Does Microsoft intend to withhold security updates from users who install Windows 11 on unsupported hardware configurations?

Microsoft is making a huge security push with Windows 11, and it very much wants to convince people that they need to buy new hardware to run Windows 11. The company is so serious about this messaging, it now makes people click through a waiver if they want to run Windows 11 on a PC that isn’t officially supported.

Image by the Verge

There is no justifiable reason for Microsoft to withhold security updates from unofficial users, and the company knows it. In the past, Microsoft has distributed security patches and zero-day fixes to end users running pirated versions of Windows, even when it locked out other functions, because an infected PC is an infected PC.

As of right now, the official word from Microsoft is that unofficial PCs that install Windows 11 are not “entitled” to receive updates. According to Dictionary.com, “entitled” means “having a right to certain benefits or privileges.” If we take Microsoft at its word, the company is saying that unofficial users have no right to expect updates.

But there’s a difference between “Unofficial users are not entitled to receive updates” and “Updates will not be made available for unsupported PCs.”

Microsoft is well aware that “unsupported” has two different meanings in IT. In corporate terms, “unsupported” does not always mean “doesn’t work.” Autodesk has a help page that explains the situation well:

GPU’s labelled as certified are fully supported by graphics card vendors for use with Autodesk ECP applications. Other cards labelled as tested, while they may not have reported any errors during our certification tests,[and] do not have the same level of vendor support in case issues related to graphics fidelity, instability and performance.

If you want to run 3ds Max on a GeForce, nobody will stop you. If you want Autodesk to certify that your PC should run 3ds Max without a problem and offer professional support if it refuses to do so, you’d best be running a specific, supported set of hardware and software.

The other meaning of “unsupported” is a straightforward “It doesn’t work.” An x86 CPU does not support the ARM instruction set. A PS5 does not support playing Xbox Series S|X games and vice-versa. So when Microsoft says “You are not entitled to receive updates and we don’t officially support this hardware configuration,” does that mean “Installing Windows 11 is itself an unacceptable security risk” or does it mean “We reserve the right to be dicks in the future, but for now, we’ll continue acting as if we understand the critical role our systems play in worldwide PC infrastructure.”

There’s not a lot of wiggle room here. Microsoft may be hoping that it can play both sides of the FUD card by never actually exercising its right to cut unsupported users off from security updates, or it may be trying to soft-pedal the news that updates will not be provided so that the topic doesn’t dominate the news cycle immediately prior to launch.

It’s not crazy to ask if Microsoft would consider saying one thing and doing another. Officially, Microsoft’s Windows 10 free upgrade program ended one year after the OS launched. In practice, it never stopped. Microsoft’s official policies and its unofficial policies do not always align. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it’s important to know where those situations are.

Security should never be a topic where companies deploy FUD. In this context, “entitled” is a weasel word. No one is asking whether Microsoft views existing end-users as entitled to Windows updates. We know that most of the PC hardware built in the last decade is unsupported.

The question here is simple:

Will end-users who install Windows 11 on unsupported hardware receive automatic security updates? If the answer to this is “No,” will they be able to install updates manually?

Right now, it looks like Microsoft is trying to play both ends against the middle. It declares in the sternest possible tones that these are unsupported configurations and that end-users are not entitled to updates, but it stops short of saying that such updates will not be provided anyway.

If Microsoft were to declare that end-users will not receive security updates, it would be admitting that it is choosing to make Windows 11 less secure and abandoning the security principles it’s held for decades. If Microsoft were to flatly ban upgrades, it’ll take blowback from the enthusiast community, where people generally are not interested in reconfiguring hardware or buying new equipment because a software company finds it convenient.

The problem is, it’s currently impossible to tell what the company is playing at or what its end goal is. From Microsoft’s perspective, this may read as a reason why people should play it safe and buy fresh hardware for Windows 11. From ours, it looks like an excellent reason not to bother with Windows 11 in the first place.

We were initially pleased when Microsoft announced that it would allow unofficial OS installs, but unofficial support without security updates is worse than no support at all. Microsoft is welcome to keep its feature updates, automatic driver installation, settings changes, and app updates shoved inside its own servers by default, but security updates are a separate category unto themselves and ought to be treated that way.

Microsoft needs to have the guts to speak plainly on this issue. If Microsoft intends to withhold security updates on unsupported systems, tell people that. Put it in the waiver. If Microsoft does not intend to do this, say so. If Microsoft is withholding knowledge on the future of security updates as a means of encouraging people to update, admit it. Using the threat of withheld security updates as a cudgel to beat people into upgrading is both cowardly and unethical.

Each Windows launch is different and dominated by a different conversation, but this is the first OS launch I can recall in which the question of whether or not the manufacturer of the product wanted you to use it was so thoroughly in play. At this point, the overwhelming message of Windows 11 is “Stick with Windows 10.”

If Microsoft wants to change that, being straightforward about its security plans going forward would be a great place to start. It doesn’t matter what users are “entitled” to. It matters whether or not Microsoft plans to provide security updates on unsupported PC configurations.

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