Every version of Windows has emphasized different traits and ideas and, in that sense, could be said to have a personality. In several cases — Windows 7 and Windows 10, most notably — one could fairly argue that the dominant theme of the then-new OS was “All the under-the-hood improvements of Vista / Windows 8 that you liked, without the UI you loathed.”
To the extent that Windows 11 has an identity, it’s an exclusionary one. The dominant discussion around Windows 11 since Microsoft announced it has been around who can run the OS and who can’t. The gap between announcement and launch is also much smaller than in past cycles; the typical gap between an OS announcement and its launch is a year and more. Microsoft announced Windows 11 in June and is shipping it in October.
Microsoft has certainly course-corrected before; Windows 10’s UI was partly an apology for Windows 8. But Windows 11 goes farther than a UI overhaul. Windows 11 rejects Windows 10’s entire self-justification and the associated arguments Microsoft made in 2014 and 2015 about what the future of the PC ecosystem looked like.
When Microsoft announced Windows 10, it declared that the OS would be deployed on as much hardware as possible, as widely as possible. The OS’s minimum requirements would remain mostly identical. Most, if not all, of the systems running Windows 7 could automatically upgrade to Windows 10.
According to Microsoft, Windows 10 was the last version of Windows. The company made this point repeatedly in its marketing strategy. Windows 10 was the beginning of Windows-as-a-service and the effective end of the old software distribution method. In the future, OS updates would arrive seamlessly and automatically. There’d be no need to care which version of Windows you were running because everyone would be running the same version. There’d be no need to worry about OS compatibility in the future because if your device ran Windows 10, it ran Windows 10.
Google and Apple deliver updates somewhat similarly, but neither company has ever implied it will launch the “last” version of Android or iOS, in any way, shape, or form. Microsoft leaned into this point, hard. The various OS releases Microsoft has done over the years each has its own end-support date, feeding the narrative that Windows 10 updates would arrive in perpetuity as an ongoing process, not as discrete events.
I’m sure there were people who didn’t believe Windows 10 would be the last version of Windows. I didn’t. But Microsoft sure the heck seemed to, based on how much effort the company put into that messaging. Windows 10 was the last version of Windows. Windows 10 could run on anything. The implied future of computing, therefore, was one in which a device that could run Windows 10 today could be broadly assumed to be capable of running the latest version of Windows until it physically died.
This may have been bad messaging, but it’s the message Microsoft pushed and the expectation Microsoft set. The company was so committed to shoving people onto Windows 10, it deployed an application it later admitted was effectively malware in an attempt to force people to switch. Microsoft wanted people to use Windows 10.
But Windows 11? Not so much. Windows 11 appears to come with a waiver now to make certain you don’t try to run it on the wrong hardware.
There’s nothing new about operating systems only running on relatively new hardware. Windows 95’s hardware requirements were much more stringent than Windows 3.1. Windows XP required significantly more horsepower than Windows 95. There was a time when the need to upgrade hardware in order to run software was expected and accepted, if never beloved.
Microsoft changed the market expectation that new operating systems required new hardware by maintaining and emphasizing compatibility with old equipment. Windows 10 will run on equipment that ran Windows Vista. Children born the year Vista launched have entered or are about to enter high school [and…you just gave your editor a heart attack. -Ed]. Windows 11 offers no rationale for this change and does not include features that require it, save for the fact that Microsoft wants it to.
Microsoft Hasn’t Done the Work to Justify the Cutoff to Consumers
I’m not going to say it’s impossible for Microsoft to sell security as a reason to upgrade one’s PC, but it’s not easy. “Install this software update and your PC will stop crashing” is a message that practically sells itself. “Install this software update so that the security attacks you aren’t dealing with 99 percent of the time happen even less” is not.
The problem with cutting off OS support as tightly as Microsoft has is that it sends two conflicting messages. On the one hand, Microsoft is claiming that PCs bought as recently as three years ago are unsafe in some fashion and must be replaced. On the other, it’s promising to keep Windows 10 support running until 2025.
Microsoft is claiming that TPM support will make PCs more secure, but it can’t point to any widely-known critical threats that would have been stopped by TPM. It can’t articulate a concrete benefit that will arrive with TPM support because supporting a TPM module isn’t like having an extra CPU core or a faster graphics card. Invisible protection doesn’t get noticed the way introducing new features or resolving major problems does. The fact that security upgrades are difficult to market doesn’t make them less important, but this would be a much easier swallow if Microsoft hadn’t spent six years telling people they could run Windows on practically anything they wanted.
Microsoft can’t claim that Windows 10 machines are subject to a vast array of security threats without indicting its own product, as it’s the manufacturer of Windows. It can’t build on the momentum behind a new API launch the way it did with DirectX 12, because there isn’t one. Specific features like DirectStorage are not unique to Windows 11. It’s stuck trying to sell people on security without having any real security problems to sell on.
When Microsoft launched Windows 10, it flung the doors as wide as possible and invited anyone with silicon that could still boot to join the eternal Windows 10 party in which updates would arrive seamlessly, invisibly, and without you having to care. With Windows 11, it’s flipped the script upside down. Now, you have to care about whether your PC supports a hardware standard that enthusiasts may have reasons not to use, all so you can download a new version of an operating system that Microsoft previously swore it didn’t need to update this way.
The larger Windows-as-a-service model isn’t going away — the fact that Windows 11 centers advertising is proof of that — but Microsoft has apparently given up on the idea that the entire PC ecosystem ought to be using a single version of Windows. Given that this concept was central to Windows 10, it’s a rather surprising repudiation of a strategy the company previously made central to its entire image. In 2015, the OS was tailored to run on your hardware, no matter how much that hardware sucked. In 2021, your hardware is expected to be tailored for the OS. It’s fair to note that this is more or less a return to the historic status quo, but Microsoft is the company that spent years telling people that the old status quo no longer applied.
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