Microsoft has ended its support for Windows 7, so what does it mean for users?

With the ending of the support period for Windows 7 comes a wealth of security risks from new viruses, worms and trojans

An attendee looks at a Samsung Galaxy Book laptop computer January 10, 2020 on the final day of the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada.     / AFP / Robyn Beck
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If the startup chime of your computer this morning was followed by a full-screen message telling you that "your Windows 7 PC is out of support", you're not alone. Hundreds of millions of PCs are still running the decade-old Windows 7 operating system, despite Microsoft's best efforts to persuade its customers to make the jump to Windows 10. But for many reasons – economic, logistic or just downright stubbornness – many are holding firm. Some might see their stance as a noble act of resistance against the world's second-biggest company, but their fight cannot be easily won. With the ending of the support period for Windows 7 comes a wealth of security risks from new viruses, worms and trojans. Microsoft isn't going to keep you – or, indeed, your business – safe any longer.

It would be an exaggeration to describe Windows 7 as "much-loved", but these things are relative. Windows Vista, its predecessor, was criticised for its poor security and unreliable compatibility with existing software and hardware. Windows 8, its successor, was described by one reviewer as "clumsy and impractical". So almost by default, Windows 7 became a consumer favourite – and that's part of the problem being faced today. Everything has a shelf life, and 10 years is, in software terms, a pretty long innings. Microsoft announced a year ago that support for Windows 7 would end on Tuesday, January 14 – yesterday – but rather like an expiry date stamped on canned food, you can't blame people for asking what the big deal is. How bad can it be? After all – Windows 7 works.

In the short term, the dangers to security may be minimal. But as time goes by, vulnerability to malware increases. Take the example of Windows XP, which has been out of support for more than five years. According to computer security company F-Secure, it now takes 20 minutes on average for a Windows XP machine to be hacked after connecting it to the internet. As machines go unpatched, the number of holes in their software increase. And while many people may question why they would be targeted, the truth is, automated systems don't care who you are. All that matters is the vulnerability of the system – and Windows 7 is now being left to its own defences.

The risk to consumers of leaving system software unpatched is primarily theft, of identity and of assets. Businesses, who also have responsibility to employees and customers, generally show greater diligence in upgrading their PCs, but the associated expense and disruption has caused millions of them to postpone the inevitable. Last month, a survey of the British National Health Service reported that nearly a quarter of a million computers were still running Windows 7. In the USA, it’s estimated that the majority of jurisdictions still use Windows 7 (or older) machines to tally votes and report election counts. In Asia, analytics firm GlobalData estimates that 35 per cent of enterprise PCs are still plugging away with Windows 7.

Recognising the various threats to business, Microsoft announced in October that a special Security Update license would be offered to companies who needed more time to make the upgrade – but that would come at a price, with that license increasing in cost every year, and an absolute deadline of January 2023. No such offer is open to home users.

Upgrading is never popular. We spend many hours each week clicking around on-screen environments that become very familiar spaces. We get to know where everything is and what everything does. When that changes, people get frustrated and angry. They start campaigns for things to be put back the way they were, and question why anything needed to change in the first place. Many PC users dislike the tiles and taskbar quirks of Windows 10, and find Windows 7 to be cleaner and more intuitive. Whether that’s true, or whether they’re just more used to Windows 7, isn’t something that can be measured objectively.

What can be measured, however, is the annoyance people feel when they’re forced to upgrade. Back in 2015 Microsoft launched pop-up notifications to urge people to install the newly-launched Windows 10, and saw a wave of resentment at their marketing campaign. One user took Microsoft to court for attempting to upgrade her computer without her consent. The company learned its lesson, and now describes its notifications of the end of Windows 7 support as a “courtesy reminder”, while giving people a “do not notify me again” option to suppress any future nudges. This could, however, cause complacency.

Windows 10 Home is on sale in the Microsoft UAE store for $199 (Dh730), which could be another deterrent to upgrading. But it is reported on technology website ZDNet that the free Windows 10 upgrade programme – which was supposed to end in the summer of 2016 – still works, and it offers a walk-through of how to get it.

Whether Microsoft will respond is unclear, but its decision could sum up the big question at the heart of this issue: are technology companies more interested in the security of their customers, or the revenue they collect by forcing them to upgrade?