Windows 7 versus Windows 10: Here comes the final showdown

With less than a year to a major Windows 7 support deadline, it’s decision time for the PC.

Future updates to Windows 10 will reserve 7 GB of storage The 'reserved storage' coming with the next Windows 10 version is another reason to avoid PCs with little storage.

It's now less than a year until Windows 7 goes out of mainstream support; after January 14, 2020, Microsoft will no longer provide security updates or support for PCs running Windows 7 -- unless you want to pay extra, of course.

This is a big issue for many companies: while Windows 7 is long in the tooth (it went on sale back in October 2009), it's much loved -- at least, as much as a PC operating system can be loved -- and is still widely used.

Indeed, even though Windows 10 has been around since late 2015, it's only in the last month or so that general usage of Windows 10 has finally overtaken Windows 7. According to Microsoft there are 1.5 billion devices running Windows, with more than 700 million running Windows 10. But that means there are hundreds of millions of devices running Windows 7, with that support deadline looming.

Microsoft is certainly keen for businesses to upgrade, touting the security of Windows 10 over Windows 7 as a good reason to make the move. It's also keen to get as many users onto Windows 10 as possible because that will help it build momentum behind Windows-as-a-Service, which means regular feature updates rather than massive upgrade projects every few years.

But enterprises, which are often cautious about new technology, will have noted Microsoft's buggy recent Windows 10 upgrades and will worry about the impact on their infrastructure.

So what happens now?

Andrew Hewitt, a tech analyst at Forrester Research, says the past two years has already seen a massive migration and push towards Windows 10.

According to Forrester's survey of infrastructure decision-makers, 56 percent of company-issued PCs are currently running Windows 10 -- up eight percent from last year, and 18 percent from the year before. "This shift is happening at a quick rate, but as you can see, there's still quite a ways to go before everyone is shifted over to Windows 10," says Hewitt.

SEE: Windows 10 April 2018 Update: An insider's guide (free PDF)

So why hasn't everyone updated yet? One reason is that businesses have legacy apps that aren't compatible with Windows 10 and they don't know what to do about it, or they have not yet done their application compatibility testing -- a key migration milestone. Some are concerned about the frequency of Windows updates and don't have the processes in place to adequately respond, and some are concerned about cost.

"All these things work together to keep organizations on Windows 7," Hewitt says.

Hewitt predicts that even by the 2020 date, we won't be seeing full Windows 10 adoption, as some organisations are comfortable waiting longer before they make these changes. There are also some non-standard devices, like ruggedized devices, that will run Windows 7 for quite some time, he says.

"I'm optimistic about the vast majority of organizations making the move by 2020, but it certainly won't be 100 percent. Some will consider other alternatives -- like ChromeOS, for example -- which we've seen increasingly adopted in enterprise use cases," says Hewitt.

A few years ago, getting customers to shift to the newest version of Windows might have been a make-or-break project for Microsoft, but it's no longer just the Windows company these days.

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF)

In its quarterly company results, Windows is now unceremoniously lumped in with Surface, gaming and search revenue under More Personal Computing. For Microsoft, the priority is its other two revenue baskets -- Productivity and Business Processes (which includes Dynamics and Office 365) and Intelligent Cloud -- both of which, while slightly smaller by revenue, are growing faster than the group that includes Windows.  

That's probably just as well; PC shipments have been in decline for seven -- yes, seven -- years now. Consumers are buying fewer PCs (40 percent of them, down from 49 percent just five years ago), which means that PCs -- and Windows -- are increasingly mainly a business tool. As Microsoft largely missed the boat on smartphones, tablets and wearables, aiming at productivity and the cloud is a wise choice.

That's not to say the PC isn't still important: it's the gateway to many other products like Office 365, and to a lesser extent to Microsoft's cloud offerings. And despite claims that Windows would give way to Chromebooks (or, even further into the distant past, Linux on the desktop), Microsoft's OS has proved remarkably resilient. Deciding what to do about the demise of Windows 7 will be a headache and create plenty of work for IT, but the reality is that Windows is not as vital as it once was, thanks to the rise of the browser, the cloud and new device types, all of which mean that the desktop is no longer the only option for productivity.

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