Delays, deals and drastic actions: Microsoft responds to the pandemic

Because it makes Windows and Office, two tech cornerstones of most modern corporations, Microsoft's response to the COVID-19 outbreak matters a lot. Here's a rundown of what's changed.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has postponed the Tokyo Olympics, scrubbed all college sports and silenced presidential campaign rallies, so it shouldn't be any surprise that the crisis has also upended plans Microsoft once had set in similar stone.

But because of the work-at-home mandate set by many businesses, Microsoft has faced other pressures by dint of its place as the maker of Windows and Office, two technology cornerstones of modern corporations.

Along with rivals Google and Apple, Microsoft was among the first U.S. firms to send employees home, one of the first to start tearing up calendars. Since early March, it's made a score and more changes to product timelines, launched deals specific to work-at-home or the pandemic, and taken action to shutter stores and symposiums.

Computerworld has collected some of the many modifications Microsoft's made - think of this as a one-stop-shop for the changes that most affect customers, enterprise above all - and we'll continue to add to the catalog as long as the disruption lasts.

Bookmark this page, come back soon and often. We'll try to keep it as fresh as possible.

Delays and new dates

SQL Server cumulative updates are pushed back a month

On April 21, Microsoft said it would push back the releases of upcoming SQL Server updates by a month.

"Starting in May 2020, Microsoft will delay the release date for all mainstream supported SQL Server Cumulative Updates (CUs) out by one month," the company noted in a growing list of servicing changes prompted by the pandemic.

SQL Server's CUs are delivered on an unusual schedule. Each edition of the database software receives monthly CUs for the first 12 months after release, after which the tempo slows to quarterly for the following four years. (The two parts, one year plus four years, make up the software's half-decade of "Mainstream" support.)

The one-month push-back means that the next SQL Server CUs will be:

  • SQL Server 2019 CU 5 on June 16
  • SQL Server 2016 SP2 CU 13 on June 16
  • SQL Server 2017 CU 21 on July 21

Windows 10 1809 gets six more months

On April 14, Microsoft added Windows 10 1809 to the support extension list, giving customers running Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro - and niche operating systems like Windows 10 Pro Education and Windows 10 Pro for Workstations - six more months of support. Rather than having support expire May 12, those users of 1809 will have until Nov. 10 to upgrade to a newer version.

While Windows 10 Home and Pro customers will end up with a total of 24 months of support for 1809, those running Windows 10 Enterprise or Windows 10 Education will receive their standard 30 months, the support lifespan for those operating systems of each upgrade marked as yy09 in Microsoft's numeric format. Windows 10 Enterprise and Education 1809 exhausts support on May 11, 2021.

Server-side stuff receives extra support, too

Microsoft has also stretched out support for several server titles because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SharePoint Server 2010 (and the less well known SharePoint Foundation 2010 and Project Server 2010) received six (surprise) more months of support. Originally set to leave support on Oct. 13, the new ending date will be April 13, 2021.

Windows Server version 1809 had its support lengthened by the same amount of time and to the same final date as Windows 10 1809. Windows Server 1809, which debuted a year and a half ago, will receive security updates through Nov. 10.

Microsoft gave the same treatment to Configuration Manager 1810, pushing its support cutoff from May 27 to Dec. 1.

Windows 10 1709 retirement deadline extended

In mid-March, Microsoft added six months to the support lifecycle of Windows 10 Enterprise 1709 and Windows 10 Education 1709, telling customers that it would provide security updates until Oct. 13. The original drop-dead date had been April 14.

The extension pushed the support lifecycle from 30 months to a total of 36 months, the longest ever for a Windows 10 upgrade.

Third- and fourth-week Windows non-security updates cease in May

Microsoft will stop serving all optional non-security releases - those designated as C and D updates, issued during the third and fourth weeks of each month, respectively - as of May. The reason: "We are prioritizing our focus on security updates," the company said in March.

The stoppage will apply to all versions of Windows and Windows Server, from the newest (Windows 10 1909) to the oldest (Windows Server 2008 R2).

Directive that would have disabled Basic Authentication in Exchange Online postponed to '21

In September 2019, Microsoft told customers using Exchange Online - a key component of Office 365 - that it would turn off Basic Authentication for several separate services and protocols, including Exchange ActiveSync, IMAP and POP, on Oct. 13, 2020. (Basic Authentication is the simple yet familiar username + password model; it is less secure from attack than Modern Authentication, which typically includes a multi-factor authentication (MFA) backup, such as sending a security code to the user's smartphone.)

That Microsoft commandment has been postponed to "the second half of 2021." (Microsoft said it would declare a precise date "when we have a better understanding of the impact of the [COVID-19 crisis] situation."

Edge will support TLS 1.0 and 1.1 until July

Rather than follow through on a multi-vendor pledge to drop support for these obsolete encryption protocols in early 2020, Microsoft instead gave them a limited reprieve. Edge will ban TLS 1.0 and 1.1 "no sooner" than Edge 84, slated to release around July 1.

The not-dead-yet Internet Explorer (IE) and the legacy Edge are to disable the protocols by default as of Sept. 8.

Certifications' retirement deferred to January 2021

Near the end of March, Microsoft bowed to a rising tide of users' demands that they have more time to finish their work toward numerous certifications the company was going to retire this summer.

In February, Microsoft announced that all "remaining exams associated with Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA), Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD) [and] Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) will retire on June 30, 2020."

The retirements were part of an overhaul of Microsoft's certification programs that emphasized role-based training versus the product-based certifications of before.

A user-generated petition sought more time for people to finish exams for which they'd put time and money into preparation. Once the COVID-19 pandemic went global, test centers were shuttered and training classes canceled, making it impossible to complete everything by the deadline.

Microsoft set the new retirement date as Jan. 31, 2021.

The new deals

Free advice on servicing Windows 10 remotely

Microsoft will start something it's called "office hours" on Wednesday, April 22, where its experts and engineers will stand by to answer questions from IT admins about managing Windows 10 for remote workers. The hour-long session will take place between 8-9 a.m. PT at this virtual location.

At least two other dates – April 28, 4-5 p.m. PT and May 6 8-9 a.m. PT - have already been scheduled.

More information about the office hours deal are available here.

Teams set free

Microsoft launched free Teams in early March as one of its first responses to the developing pandemic. Restrictions apply, naturally, but they're not onerous. Sign up starts here.

Businesses can also get everyone in the company onto Teams for free. The "Microsoft Teams Exploratory" program lets employees without Teams but with an Azure Active Directory-managed email address request a Teams license. (The request must be initiated by the user; it cannot be claimed by an IT administrator for a user.) The no-charge license will be good until the company's next enterprise agreement anniversary or subscription renewal that falls in or after January 2021.

More information, including how administrators can manage the Teams license, can be found in this support document.

Free Office 365 E1

In March, Microsoft rolled out a free offer for Office 365 E1 "in response to the increased need for employees to work from home (WFH) in response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak." Interested businesses must work with their current Microsoft account representative - if they have one - or failing that, with a Microsoft reseller. (Customers can search here for a reseller if they're not now working with one.)

The offer provides an E1 license for up to six months. The subscription plan, which costs $8 per user per month when purchased on an annual basis, is the lowest-priced Office 365 Enterprise plan and includes web-based apps (Word, Excel and so on) rather than the more capable desktop applications. It also includes cloud-based email, cloud storage and Teams, the so-hot-it's-on-fire video conferencing/meeting software.

At that price, the offer is worth around $50 per user.

More information is available here.

(A plan analogous to E1, but for U.S. government agencies and offices, G1, can also be trialed free of charge for six months. Those details are available here.)

Six free months of Microsoft 365 Business Basic

Until the end of June, Microsoft is offering six free months of the lowest-priced Microsoft 365 subscription plan to new commercial customers who commit to an annual plan.

Customers will be charged for the seventh through twelve months of the year's subscription. The stated price for the plan is $5 per user per month.

Microsoft 365 Business Basic – known as Office 365 Business Essentials before Microsoft rebranded parts of its line-up – provides access to several Redmond-run services, including cloud-based Exchange email, OneDrive for Business storage space (1TB per user) and the collaborative Teams platform. It does not include locally installed productivity applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, now collectively known as Microsoft 365 Apps, but instead offers the web-based versions.

Microsoft has handled the free-six-month Business Basic deal since early April, but in May also let Cloud Solution Providers (CSPs) process the promotional subscriptions. More information is available online.

Drastic actions

Build 2020 goes just-digital, all Microsoft events follow suit

Microsoft's annual developers conference, originally to take place in Seattle, was kept on the calendar but went digital-only in March, when Washington state was the U.S. viral hotspot. In early April, the company said that all its events through the end of June 2021 would be "digital-first," although like many organizations, simultaneously promised that it would "continue to evaluate the situation" and return to a pre-COVID approach "when the situation allows."

Closed all retail

Microsoft shuttered its retail stores - the bulk of the 80-plus locations are in the U.S. - in mid-March. "All Microsoft Store locations are currently closed until further notice," the company said on its location portal.

The company has offered virtual workshops to replace the in-store training sessions it had run earlier. Not surprisingly, among those workshops is one called "Microsoft Teams Training for Business - Master working at home with Microsoft Teams."

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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