An interesting aspect of Windows 11 that we haven’t touched on ExtremeTech yet is that from a consumer perspective, this isn’t the best time for Microsoft to launch a new operating system. The relationship between the launch of the Microsoft operating system and the increase in hardware adoption by consumers appears to be small, especially over the past decade. But we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented silicon shortage. Any additional demand triggered by Windows 11 will underline the market more than an equivalent increase during more normal times.
From Microsoft’s point of view, this may not be a problem at all. It could actually be why the company is launching the OS when it is in the first place.
The Windows Migration Problem
Microsoft has struggled to move users from previous versions of Windows for at least the past 15 years. At first, the rapid pace of hardware and software improvement made buying new versions of previous products a pretty easy sell. Whether you liked Windows or hated it, there was no doubt that Windows 95 was radically different from Windows 3.1. When people upgraded to XP from Win 9x, they often did it to improve basic functionality and system stability.
Today, people keep computers much longer than they once did and therefore are less likely to buy a new operating system when purchasing the system. Microsoft’s first solution to this, shipped with Windows 10, was to make updating the new operating system free and easy for just about anyone, even users with old machines, and to incessantly grumble, gaslight and sting anyone not. had come aboard. Objectively, the strategy worked quite well, although we hated the nagware side. Six years after launch, the vast majority of the Windows world is running on Windows 10.
But the past six years have also seen a notable evolution in security threats. Ransomware is now a major problem in many different areas. We have seen the rise of more sophisticated malware campaigns and better infiltration software. Windows 11’s security requirements go beyond TPM 2.0 – Microsoft is still deciding exactly what they are – but the company is very serious about demanding more stringent hardware-level security standards.
Of Processors and Pandemic
In the past, Microsoft may have depended on x86 manufacturers to introduce faster CPUs on a regular basis. It’s hard to explain (or remember) how fast this cadence actually is was. In late 1995 and early 1996, the fastest CPU you could buy was a Pentium or a Pentium Pro 166. Six years later, Intel was knocking on the 2GHz door with the Northwood P4. While it is true that the Northwood P4 was also less efficient than the P3, it would still have been more efficient than the original Pentium. Take 400 MHz out of the comparison for being rude, and that’s still an 8.43x clock improvement in just over six years, not counting innovations like a full-speed on-die cache or the continued adoption of SIMD instructions that improve performance through SSE2.
Improvements now come much slower and PCs now live much longer. Worn out laptops inevitably suffer from their ever more frequent replacement than desktops, but desktop replacement cycles for PCs have gone from 2-3 years to five years or more. I once heard a company representative confidently refer to the “four-year PC replacement cycle”. Twelve months later, when informed by the same company about its new products, the rep mentioned “the five-year PC replacement cycle”.
The history of the PC market from 2010-2020 is almost entirely negative, as far as hardware sales are concerned. Ultrabooks may have helped raise average PC selling prices and certainly offer a more high-end PC experience than what was generally available 10 years ago, but PC sales have been declining year on year for most of the time. a decade, from a peak of 365 million units in 2011 to just 263 million units in 2019. In 2020, thanks to the pandemic, PC sales grew to 275 million units without a Chromebook, or about 302 million units if Chromebooks are included. But either way, Windows PC sales have grown for the first time in years.
Right now, the PC market is expected to remain strong at least until the end of the year and possibly until 2022. Any Windows update cycle that Microsoft launches now risks exacerbating demand problems. But the fact that people are updating now also represents an opportunity. Computers that people are updating, in general, support more advanced security standards than machines purchased from 2010-2016.
If Microsoft wants to push the market forward and adopt new security standards, launching a new version of Windows is probably the best way to do it. In doing so, Microsoft is returning to an earlier tactic. It could have done what Apple does and ramp up OS versions without shipping an entirely new product, but the Windows developer has historically used new versions to mark major changes in hardware support.
The launch of Windows 11 in 2021 allows Microsoft to take advantage of the fact that PC buyers are upgrading from older machines at a faster rate. It gives the business the best chance of using certain security features as an expected baseline on the widest range of PCs. In its messaging, Microsoft pointed out that Windows 10 will be supported until 2025 and we suspect this is partly to alleviate this change.
Our guess is that Microsoft is hoping to leverage the unexpected surge in PC demand to drive a faster shift towards better security standards than it could otherwise have achieved, and for that reason it is launching Windows 11 relatively soon. This also ties in with Microsoft’s emphasis on improving security in hardware, through avenues like its Pluton security processor.
For consumers, Windows 11 doesn’t seem to pack much in the “killer features” department, although the new icons are nice and the improved hybrid processing could be useful too. From Microsoft’s point of view, however, there may not be a better time. The PC market is currently experiencing its first bona fide demand boom in a decade and it took a global pandemic to realize it. It is a bad idea to bet on that type of lightning strike twice.
The answer to the question we raise in the title, we suspect, is: “Why don’t you think you have much choice.” If you want to introduce new security standards to the market, taking advantage of a huge boom in PC purchases is the best way to do it.