Clear as mud: Microsoft struggles to define 'free' for Windows 10

Microsoft's Keystone Kops-like revelation that Windows 10 testers would get a free copy of the OS -- yes, no, then yes, probably, but with strings -- may be confusing compared to Apple's approach to OS X, but reflects the much more complicated ecosystem the Redmond, Wash. company maintains.

After the technology equivalent of a balk in baseball, Windows 10's prime spokesman said Sunday that previewers would get a free copy of the operating system.

When asked by a reporter if those "who installed Windows 10 Preview clean (nuking 7/8.1 install) remain activated on RTM or not," Gabriel Aul used Twitter to answer in the affirmative. "Yes, as long as running a pre-release build connected with registered MSA [Microsoft Account]," Aul tweeted Sunday.

That reply was more nuanced than Microsoft's messaging on Friday, when Aul first said that participants in Windows Insider -- Microsoft's beta test program -- would get the stable build on July 29, even if they did not install the preview on a Windows 7 or 8.1 PC eligible for the one-year free upgrade. Aul also expanded on the topic with several tweets as he answered a cascade of questions.

That seemed to create a loophole through which others, including people with Vista- or Windows XP-powered PCs, or users who want to equip a virtual machine (VM) with Windows 10, could score a freebie.

On Saturday, however, Microsoft quietly retreated, with additions and deletions to a June 19 Aul post that confused the situation by striking references to "activation" -- the process used to identify a copy as legitimate -- and reminding everyone that "only people running Genuine Windows 7 or Windows 8.1" can upgrade to Windows 10 through the one-year free offer.

Aul's tweet of Sunday may -- or may not -- have settled the deal, which comes with caveats, first mentioned Friday but then downplayed. Users who want to retain an activated, thus "genuine" (Microsoft terminology that denotes legitimacy) copy will have to remain on the Insider "branch," or release track. Aul's tweet signaled that Insiders who haven't upgraded from a qualified edition will not be able to leave the branch, opting in for one with less-dicey updates and changes, without dropping out of activation.

Microsoft has radically overhauled Windows' update practice with v.10, accelerating the cadence and splitting the previous everyone-gets-updates-simultaneously process into multiple tracks, which the company calls "branches." There will be several, including "Current Branch" for consumers, "Current Branch for Business" and "Long-Term Serving Branch" for businesses, and Insider. Those on that last track will receive new features, functionalities and UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) changes first, before the other branches.

The Insider Branch is Microsoft's ultimate guinea pig crowd, that will, it hopes, identify problems and suggest changes before the rest of the Windows ecosystem gets them.

Microsoft's decision to give away Windows 10, even to those not eligible for the free upgrade -- those running Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Ultimate and Professional, as well as Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro -- and tie it to remaining in the preview program may have been planned. Or it may not; it's hard to tell sometimes.

In any case, Microsoft has made much of Insider the test pool for detecting issues, problems and flat-out failed updates before they're handed to others, including the bulk of consumers, who will tap into Current Branch. The more Insiders, within reasonable limits, the more data Microsoft will receive from its canaries.

Microsoft receives considerable information from Insiders, whether they explicitly provide feedback or not: By default, Windows 10's preview sends what Microsoft calls "full health, performance and diagnostics" data to Redmond. (The full list disclosed by Microsoft is here.)

The move could also be read as yet another tactic in Microsoft's pledge to put Windows 10 on a billion devices within three years, although the number who will leverage the loophole will be infinitesimal compared to the volume of users who will upgrade via the one-year offer. Still, every little bit helps.

On the other hand, by limiting the free-for-anyone carrot to those who stick with Insider, Microsoft has deftly limited it to hobbyists who won't mind being on the bleeding edge. Any business user who stayed with Insider on a production device would be certifiable.

Microsoft's latest to-and-fro over who gets Windows 10 free and who has to pay is reminiscent of the botched messaging earlier this year, when the company first said that pirated copies could be upgraded to legitimate versions of Windows 10. Days later the company walked back that statement, saying that the free Windows 10 upgrade offer "will not apply to non-genuine Windows devices."

It also illustrated how differently Microsoft defines "free" than does its desktop OS rival Apple.

Since October 2013, Apple has given away OS X upgrades to any owner of an eligible Mac. It doesn't matter where that Mac is used -- at home, in college, at work -- or what version the user was previously running. (Of the latter, Apple does have limits -- the earliest edition able to upgrade for free has been 2007's Snow Leopard because that's the oldest to support the Mac App Store, from which the upgrade is delivered.)

Microsoft, on the other hand, bars users of Windows Enterprise, the widely-used corporate SKU obtained via a volume license, from the free upgrade. It also blocks Windows Vista -- the 2007 OS whose code base is very similar to Windows 7's -- from the deal.

Although some have called on Microsoft to more closely conform to Apple's approach -- to eliminate confusion, to earn even more goodwill, to drive an even faster adoption of Windows 10 -- there are good reasons why it has not.

Tops on that list is money: Unlike Apple, much of Microsoft's revenue comes from businesses. That revenue is not trivial. Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw Research, has estimated Microsoft's commercial licensing revenue from Windows at around $900 million per quarter, or $3.6 billion annually. Microsoft cannot simply cede those billions and the ancillary Software Assurance annuity program: Shareholders would not stand for such fiduciary shenanigans.

Microsoft's difficulty defining "free" has, to a large extent, resulted from its corporate split-personality which tries to satisfy both consumer and commercial. It cannot announce "free to all" without a flurry of fine print.

Also in play is the symbiotic relationship Microsoft has with its hardware partners. Unlike Apple, which sells its own devices and essentially hides the cost of its OSes within them, Microsoft -- its own Surface line notwithstanding -- must rely on OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), and must charge them for Windows to generate revenue.

That relationship requires treading carefully, something Apple need not think about. It wouldn't be a surprise to find out that Microsoft's free upgrade -- one year from July 29 -- was made a limited-time offer because OEMs objected to anything longer. Historically, OEMs have gotten a bounce in sales after a Windows launch -- Windows 8 was the exception, due as much to the macro economics of shipment declines as to its own poor reception -- which will almost certainly take a hit from the free upgrade.

That's not to say some of this mess was not self-inflicted.

When OS boss Terry Myerson first announced that Windows 10's upgrade would be free, the company did not explicitly call out the Windows Enterprise ban, relegating it to a footnote on a website page. Later, of course, the company's public message swung from side to side on the pirates-get-the-upgrade and the latest about Insiders. It took Microsoft months to name prices for Windows 10 after the one-year free offer expires, with the company sticking to an old-school schedule for that disclosure even as it discarded the past in many other ways. And the firm has yet to define how long users not running Windows Enterprise will receive free updates and support.

Microsoft has 37 days to spill the rest of the details about Windows 10. Expect a data dump, more questions, more muddled answers.


Gregg Keizer

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