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Microsoft takes yet another shot at defining 'free' for Windows 10 testers

Microsoft takes yet another shot at defining 'free' for Windows 10 testers

Monday's update was the third or fourth time, depending on how one counted, that the company attempted to kill the confusion it started Friday.

Microsoft on Monday took another shot at clarifying its Windows 10 upgrade policy, telling Windows Insider participants that they had to remain in the preview program if they had not upgraded from an eligible PC but wanted to continue running the OS free of charge.

Monday's update was the third or fourth time, depending on how one counted, that the company attempted to kill the confusion it started Friday.

"Let me start by restating very clearly that Windows 10, whether you get it on 7/29 or whether you got it in a preview form through the Windows Insider Program, is intended to be installed on [a] Genuine Windows device," said Gabriel Aul, engineering general manager for Microsoft's operating system group, in a revised blog. "Genuine" is Microsoft lingo for a legitimate Windows license that has been activated with a product key.

Aul also admitted that his Friday announcement -- an Insider preview program housekeeping status update -- "created some unintended confusion."

No kidding.

On Friday, Aul said all testers would get the stable code on July 29, the day Microsoft plans to release the new OS, then later used Twitter to expand on the topic: Bottom line, Insiders would get the final build even if they didn't install the preview on a Windows 7 or 8.1 PC eligible for the one-year free upgrade.

That seemed to leave open a loophole through which people with Vista- or Windows XP-powered PCs, users who wanted to equip a virtual machine (VM) with Windows 10, or even those running an older-but-pirated copy of Windows, could score a freebie.

However, amendments made Saturday to Aul's blog threw everything into doubt by striking references to "activation" and reminding everyone that "only people running Genuine Windows 7 or Windows 8.1" could upgrade to Windows 10 via the free offer. The changes signaled a retreat from the position of the day before.

Aul weighed in again on Sunday, tweeting assurances that as long as testers continued to run a pre-release build linked to their Microsoft Account -- no matter how it was installed -- Windows 10 would remain activated, and thus considered legit.

Yesterday, he confirmed as much, even as he stressed that Windows 10 "is intended" to be installed on a device running a legitimately licensed edition, a curious juxtaposition.

"This is pre-release software and is activated with a pre-release key," Aul said Monday of the Insider previews. "Each individual build will expire after a time, but you'll continue to receive new builds, so by the time an older pre-release build expires you'll have received a new one."

In plain English: Anyone can install Windows 10 on a device or within a VM -- ignoring the prerequisite of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 -- by using one of the beta's disk images (in .iso format) and run the preview indefinitely and free of charge as long as they remain on the Insider branch.

However, opt out of Insider -- as users can -- and that copy of Windows 10 will expire, and thus drop into some kind of degraded state. (At the very least Microsoft marks "non-genuine" copies with a watermark; there may be other ramifications, but the company's not yet spelled them out.)

"If you decide to opt-out of the program and upgrade to the 7/29 build, you will be subject to exactly the same terms and conditions that govern the offer that was extended to all Genuine Windows 7 and 8.1 customers," said Aul, referring to the limited-time free upgrade. "This is not a path to attain a license for Windows XP or Windows Vista systems. If your system upgraded from a Genuine Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 license, it will remain activated, but if not, you will be required to roll back to your previous OS version or acquire a new Windows 10 license. If you do not roll back or acquire a new license the build will eventually expire."

Again, in plain English: Abandon Insider and the "free" Windows 10 isn't free any longer, unless the test device was upgraded from an eligible Windows 7/8.1 PC, in which case the free upgrade offer applies.


Computerworld interpreted Aul's tweet of Sunday in that exact way, but because of Microsoft's confused messaging, that reading wasn't guaranteed to be correct. Now it is.

The loophole will continue to exist, assuming one can stomach the feature and change churn of Insider in perpetuity. But why? Microsoft can obviously detect machines equipped with Windows 10 and activated with one of the pre-release product keys. Also obvious is that Microsoft knows which systems were upgraded to the Windows 10 beta from an eligible Windows 7 or 8.1 OS. Why doesn't it just shut off the preview spigot to those who did not upgrade to Windows 10 within the limits of the free offer?

The simplest explanation is that Microsoft wanted to keep as many users as feasible on the Insider branch. Come July 29, it's likely that a large number of those now running the beta will opt out for the stable build, deserting the fast-changing, bleeding-edge previews.

Supporting that was Aul's original Friday post, where he labeled one section "Stay with us as a Windows Insider," and urged users to remain with the preview. "We hope that we'll continue to provide you great reasons to remain a Windows Insider," Aul said.

Insider is key to Microsoft's one-step-at-a-time testing of feature, functionality, UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) updates.

Once Microsoft completes an update internally, it will be seeded to Insiders, and Insiders only, who will run it for at least a month. At the end of that month, Microsoft will decide if the update is suitably stable -- and that bugs uncovered by participants have been patched -- for the much larger number of consumers tapped into the "Current Branch" distribution track.

Current Branch users will then install and run the update, again for about a month, again uncovering flaws or problems, before Microsoft greenlights said update for the "Current Branch for Business," the track for Windows 10 Pro and Windows 10 Enterprise, and the cadence Microsoft wants most corporate PCs to adopt.

Both Insider and Current Branch will thus play the role of lab rat for Current Branch for Business users, testing updates before they're released to Microsoft's most important customers: enterprises.

Without a suitable number of Insiders, that plan is in trouble, and bugs that should have been caught will instead worm their way onto hundreds of millions of consumer PCs, creating a PR and fix-it-fast nightmare. Or worse, corporate machines get a buggy update, or more accurately, a buggier update than Microsoft intended, a risk enterprise-dependent Redmond simply can't afford.

By giving customers, no matter how they came to Windows 10, a way to continue running the Insider branch -- and giving those ineligible for the free upgrade the motivation to get on Insider -- Microsoft ensures that the pool of testers remains large enough to serve its purpose.

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