What Windows 11 means: We'll be stuck with millions of Windows 10 zombies

Some machines will be left behind despite owners' preferences. Many others will be abandoned because their owners either don't know how, don't care, or refuse to upgrade.

ZDNet's guru of all things Windows, Ed Bott, has the latest technical details. He's been trying to wring the facts out of Microsoft by sheer force of will. I, on the other hand, am going to simply howl at the moon.

Let's back up for a minute. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Microsoft announced Windows 11 last week.

ed bott

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Wait....screeeeeech...what?

Hold on. Wasn't Windows 10 supposed to be the last Windows ever? Yeah, well, the idea that Windows 10 would be the last branded version of Windows wasn't even very clear back at launch time in 2015, but it was certainly a topic of discussion in the press. Let's just stick with the facts.

The fact is, there's a Windows 11, and it's coming soon -- in time for holiday machine sales soon. Jason Perlow's take on the whole thing is that Windows 11 is a glorified theme pack for Windows 10. If anyone can write a reductive statement about an entire operating system, that's Jason.

But here's the part that got my attention: Windows 11 won't run on many current Windows machines. Despite Ed's herculean efforts to get Microsoft to commit to clarifying their corporate double-speak, we're not entirely sure what that means.

We do know (we think) that only certain processors will be supported, only 64-bit machines will be supported, and only machines with a TPM chip will run Windows 11. For the very latest, keep an eye on Ed's article on the subject, which he keeps up to date.

What does that mean for you and me? It means that many machines will be left behind. They will become the walking dead, unable to upgrade, but still shambling along. Well, I don't know about you, but I have a pile of Windows machines here. I have a bunch of physical boxes, plus an even larger number of virtual machines -- all running Windows 10.

Because of the security risks involved in running out of date Windows systems, I try to keep my machines up to date. Back in 2016, I upgraded 10 of my then 15 Windows machines. The five I didn't update were not in service and I donated them shortly after.

I still have most of those machines, and while I can tweak the hardware specs on the virtual machines, that's not possible on the physical machines. And, of course, since 2016, more Windows boxes have found their way into my possession. As far as I can tell, most of those machines also can't be upgraded to Windows 11.

Now, look. I know that not everyone likes upgrading their perfectly good, perfectly working older Windows machines. As far back as 2014, I wrote about ZDNet readers who informed me they would never update their cherished Windows XP machines.

Fast forward seven years, and, according to NetMarketShare, 1.15% of all machines are still -- still -- running XP. There are a couple of billion desktops and laptops in use across the planet. Even using rough estimates, 1.15% of a two billion+ is about 25 million. Yes, there are more than 25 million XP machines still in service. And just in case you don't keep track of such things, let me remind you that Windows XP is 19 years old. XP's latest release, Service Pack 3 (5.1.2600.5512), was released on April 21, 2008 -- 13 years ago.

Just to be clear, unless those machines are air-gapped from the Internet, they are wildly insecure and are epic malware magnets.

If you're curious how entrenched older Windows versions are, we can get a good estimate by visiting a dataset maintained by the United States Government Digital Analytics Program. This dataset contains a rolling summary of visitors to US government websites and the operating systems their browsers report that they use.

Let's kick-off with the most bizarre observation: 15 users who accessed government sites are still using Windows 3.1! That's a 30-year-old operating system. 3,255, 5,131, and 1,088 accesses came from people who are still using Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows ME, respectively. Hello? The 1990s called and would like its operating systems back.

Just to get a feel for the current distribution of Windows versions in use, here's a pretty chart:

windows-accesses.png

Analysis: ZDNet/David Gewirtz based on analytics.usa.gov data

As you can see, the preponderance of access is coming from Windows 10 users. That said, there were still millions of page views coming from operating systems long ago consigned to the dustbin of history. I don't show the Windows 3.1 users on the chart because they really are a very, very tiny percentage. But they're there in the data. 

This cross-checks with Ed's report from back in December. At that time, Ed reported that a year after support (and security updates) ended, millions of people were still running Windows 7.

My biggest concern, of course, is security. For those who pay, Windows 7 security updates will be available through January 2023. It's not easy for smaller businesses and individuals to get that support, but it's there. Mainstream support for Windows 8 and 8.1 is over, but extended support is available through January 2023.

WIndows 10 support, especially for those abandoned by Windows 11's restrictive update policy, will end in October 2025, but Ed tells me he thinks that will be extended. That's good news because there are roughly 1.3 billion Windows 10 devices out there. How many won't be able to upgrade? That's not a question we know the answer to now, but Ed tells me he's working on constructing an estimate, so keep checking back into his column.

At the beginning of this article, I posed the question, "So does this mean we're going to be stuck with millions of Windows 10 zombies?"

Based on both Ed's reporting and the facts teased out of the government access stats, the answer is... definitely. Some machines will be left behind despite owners' preferences.

Many others will remain behind because their owners either don't know how, don't care, or refuse to upgrade. Others can't upgrade, because they're reliant on legacy software that only runs on older machines. No matter the reason, expect millions of Windows 10 machines to be in the wild for a decade or more - each an ever-increasing magnet for malware, each an ever-increasing danger to other machines they might encounter and infect. Brains! Must. Eat. Brains!

All that brings me back to my machines and yours. Even if you and I are stuck on Windows 10, we still have a good four years of support. That gives us four years to come up with a replacement plan, which is more than enough time. For those of you who will choose "hell no, I won't go," it gives you time to ascertain security risks of running unprotected, and find ways to protect those legacy machines.

The bottom line: there will be zombies in ten years. Given that there are 30-year-old Windows 3.1 machines still in use now, there might even be (a few) zombie Windows 10 machines in use as far out as 30 years from now, in 2051.

So, what's your story? Do you have Windows 10 machines you can't upgrade? Are you planning on moving to Windows 11? Do you still have some oldies but goodies hiding (or even in service)? Let us know in the comments below.


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