Windows 11 and the Compatibility Question

Windows 11 and the Compatibility Question

The unexpected announcement of Windows 11 is already facing a backlash from IT Pros. It's not clear whether PCs will be able to run Microsoft's new OS.

We should have seen the controversy coming. When Microsoft unexpectedly announced Windows 11 last week, there was a fair amount of surprise, but the initial reception was positive. The new UI brought consistency to a platform notorious for lacking it. There were several useful new features and an opening up of the long neglected Windows Store to any developer. Then people saw the minimum hardware requirements.

Windows is famous for its backwards compatibility. Over the last few days, Windows 11 has become infamous for only supporting high-end PCs manufactured in the last four years. Not even Microsoft's flagship Surface Studio 2 supports the new OS, and that's a device that can currently be purchased brand new from the Microsoft Store for between £3500 and £5000. Even if you wanted to upgrade to Windows 11 on day 1, there is a good chance your PC won't support it.

Security First

There are clear technical reasons for the strict system requirements. It's all down on security. Microsoft have long recommended that PCs include a TPM 2.0 chip to store encryption keys in hardware. Similarly, Windows 10 introduced Secure Boot and UEFI BIOS support to protect PCs from being hijacked by malware on startup. These have been upgraded from recommendations to mandates in the new OS. In doing so, Microsoft have made a conscious decision to cut off support for many PCs brought before Windows 10 was released, but it's one that security experts have been pushing for a long time.

It's the decision to abandon support for CPUs released before 2018 that is causing the real controversy. PC makers have been told that their devices need to contain eighth-generation Intel core processors, second-generation AMD Ryzen processors or newer. That's an unusually strict cut off introduced because these CPUs contain hardware mitigations for the Spectre security flaws that made headlines in 2018. For new PCs, such aggressive system requirements are fair. These components have been around for four years, so are cheap enough to include in low-end devices. The problem is that these minimum specifications have been extended to upgraded PCs, which is unprecedented for Microsoft.

The Impossible Upgrade?

One of the big reasons for the success of Windows 10 was that many existing PCs were automatically upgraded to it. The mass upgrade program was controversial at the time because of the often dubious tactics it used. Over the long term, it has definitely contributed to the widespread adoption and popularity of Windows 10. As a result, Windows 8 has pretty much disappeared from general use, and Microsoft was able to end support for Windows 7 in 2019 with only minimal disruption.

A similar mass upgrade program will be tried with Windows 11, but the inability of most PCs to even run the OS will severely limit its reach. Good luck trying to sunset support for Windows 10 in four years time, when most active devices don't even support the next version. Widely reported processor shortages will limit the ability of consumers and businesses to replace their computers even if they wanted to upgrade. Most don't.

New Design

There's still plenty of interesting changes in Windows 11 for those eager to make the switch. The centred Start Button made the headlines but is only a small part of a wider UI update. The Start menu has been totally redesigned to show recent documents alongside pinned apps. Snap groups provide a new way of organising applications on-screen and ensuring that related apps open and close together.

Visually the changes between Windows 10 and 11 are striking. Transparency is very much in, while rounded corners are a key part of the new design language. The UI changes go deeper than previous versions of Windows, touching the built-in apps such as Paint and Notepad. They even extend to the desktop, which now hosts Android style widgets.

New Apps

Speaking of Android, a partnership with Amazon means that Windows now runs Android apps. That will significantly boost the declining market for Windows tablets and convertibles. Any app in the Amazon App Store is supported on Windows. This isn't as surprising as it sounds. Windows 10 has been able to run Linux apps for several years, and it's not difficult to extend that capability to run Android.

The Android news is part of a wider refresh of the Windows Store, which will be backported to Windows 10. Microsoft are dropping the strict developer requirements that hampered the store in the past. Going forward, it can host any kind of app, including major applications such as the Adobe Creative Suite. Developers can even distribute apps through the store using their own infrastructure, and by doing so will avoid giving Microsoft a cut of any sales made through the store.

The Future?

Then there is the news about Microsoft Teams. The consumer version of this popular collaboration tool is being integrated into Windows. It even takes up space on the taskbar, replacing Cortona and the rarely used People button in the system tray. This has led to some very pertinent questions about the future of Skype, which has been neglected by Microsoft ever since a botched redesign in 2016.

Other analysts are asking similar questions about the long term future of Windows 11. Microsoft has a history of alternating between good and bad versions of Windows. Windows 10 was popular and successful, so by this theory Windows 11 was always going to struggle with a bad reputation and poor sales. So far, this is true. Much like Windows Vista, the new OS contains many interesting ideas that can be polished over time, but questions over minimum requirements and hardware support will prevent it from succeeding in the marketplace. It's just as well that Windows 10 isn't going anywhere any time soon.

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Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.