Sometimes it takes just a simple two-lines-long mail message to lead one’s mind in a certain direction — and that’s exactly what happened to yours truly a couple of days ago while helping a colleague. He’s one of those unlucky Windows 10 users who have been through a lot while working with Microsoft’s infamously ill-supported OS, losing valuable personal data and even access to his work files because of botched system upgrades (for which the company had barely accepted any responsibility). He’s still on Windows 10 20H2 — stubbornly refusing to upgrade to more recent versions since October 2020 because “this works OK” — and literally panicked when he read that, in a couple of weeks, he will have to upgrade in order to continue getting security updates.
He asked for help. So I was in the process of explaining that the latest version of Windows 10 (21H2) was just designated by Microsoft as ready for broad deployment and that it would most probably be fine to install it (after making a full system backup this time)… when it hit me.
What is my friend — and every other current Windows 10 user with a PC that’s more than four years old — going to do in November 2025?
An upgrade path not offered, a huge problem ahead
Here is how things stand right now: Microsoft has set a number of hardware requirements for Windows 11, some of which prevent even perfectly usable (even extremely powerful!) PCs based on Windows 10 to be upgraded to the company’s newest operating system. Owners of these PCs can look forward to system, feature and security updates for Windows 10 until October 2025, after which point it will no longer be supported by Microsoft — as was the case with Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows 8 in the past.
The problem is that, come October 2025, due to this barrier of system requirements — which is linked to hardware, so it can’t be easily overcome — those hundreds of millions of PCs based on Windows 10 have no upgrade path to follow. This was not the case for Windows 7 and Windows 8 PCs, which were (still are) upgradable to Windows 10 directly, for free. The fact that many consumers and some businesses using Windows 7/8/8.1 chose not to upgrade to Windows 10 has been well established and widely discussed, but the option was (still is) available to them. In the case of Windows 10 PCs that lack the TPM 2.0 module and/or are based on Intel/AMD processors older than four years old, there is simply no such choice.
This is a huge problem because of the sheer number of Windows 10-based PCs out there and the percentage of which are not upgradable to Windows 11. There are no hard numbers one can point to, unfortunately, but chances are that of all the Windows 10-based PCs out there less than half sport a four-year-old or newer main processor. According to recent estimates, there are at least 1.2 billion computers using Windows 10 worldwide. Even if half of them can be upgraded and do get upgraded to Windows 11, there will still be around 600 million PCs vulnerable to all kinds of security threats come November 2025.
To put that into perspective, there are still around 150 million computers out there using Windows 7 or Windows 8… and these are considered to be one of the most vulnerable points of entry for WannaCry- or MyDoom- or ILoveYou-type virus/malware attacks in the tech world today. Four times as many computers not protected by security updates is nothing less than a nightmare not just for the Windows ecosystem, but for the Internet as a whole.
So how will Microsoft handle this?
This is a question that nobody — probably not even Microsoft itself — can answer at the moment. The company seems determined to keep the hardware system requirements of Windows 11 in place, probably hoping that by 2025 (a) more consumers owning upgradeable Windows 10 PCs will make the transition to its newest operating system and that (b) a large number of Windows 10 computers upgraded from older Windows 7/8 installations will finally be decommissioned. These, along with every new PC sale happening between now and the fall of 2025 (which will be Windows 11-only) should gradually tip the scales in the latter’s favor.
Those hopes are not ungrounded, but they also aren’t the solution to a problem of this magnitude. On one hand, if history repeats itself, there will still be a sizable percentage of those 600 million people owning an upgradeable Windows 10 PC that will simply never upgrade to Windows 11 for a number of reasons. On the other hand, there is no way that Microsoft will be able to convince several hundred million owners of perfectly fine Windows 10 PCs to just ditch them and buy new ones because their current machines will not be getting security updates. A large number of those people will continue using their PCs anyway. Windows 7 is proof of that.
In a way, Microsoft is a victim of its own success — and a few of its strategic choices — as more than 80% of all Windows installations worldwide are based on Windows 10. The company will eventually have to accept the responsibility that comes with that level of success. The Redmond giant may decide, for instance, to just keep on protecting all Windows 10 PCs with security updates only — no feature updates, no system updates — beyond the October 2025 deadline, just as it did with Windows XP. It obviously would not do so indefinitely, but three or four more years would allow for a much smoother fadeout of its previous operating system. Until such a plan is confirmed, though, Windows 10 is a potential threat to the Windows ecosystem: a figurative bomb that is already ticking.