Microsoft wants everyone to run Windows 10.
They're so determined to make a clean break with the past, in fact, that they've made an unprecedented offer of free Windows 10 upgrades for anyone running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. That's a huge user base, representing hundreds of millions and perhaps more than 1 billion PCs worldwide.
This is a very big deal. For the first time ever, a major Windows version upgrade will arrive via Windows Update, with no payment required and no hoops to jump through.
They doubled down on that deal last week with news that the upgrade would be available even on PCs running "non-genuine" (pirated) copies of Windows.
Now, though, the company appears to be backing down from that initial, apparently too-good-to-be-true offer.
It's yet another round of disappointment in the continuing saga of Microsoft licensing. Every time it looks like the company is about to do something to make Windows licensing more sensible and less onerous, someone (usually in the legal department) gets cold feet.
To understand what's going on here, we need to start with a quick primer on how Microsoft turns operating systems into cash.
Microsoft's business model for Windows has been unchanged for years: PC makers pay for OEM copies of Windows, which they sell to consumers and businesses. Consumers pay for upgrades (unless they're hobbyists building their own PCs, in which case they are expected to pay for a retail Windows license). Enterprise customers pay dearly for volume license upgrades that include a slew of advanced management features and additional use rights.
The bedrock of that model is the full Windows license , which Microsoft insists on receiving payment for, usually through an OEM. Through the years, Microsoft has come up with stickers and certificates of authenticity, augmented by holograms and other anti-tampering mechanisms, to help prove that a PC has that underlying license and is thus, in its weird marketing-speak, "genuine."
It was big news back in January when Windows boss Terry Myerson announced that "a free upgrade for Windows 10 will be made available to customers running Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and Windows Phone 8.1 who upgrade in the first year after launch.*"
Note the word "customers." Myerson didn't say "consumers," and there's not a word in the accompanying blog post to suggest a distinction between business and consumer use. (That fact will become important shortly.)
Yes, there's an asterisk, which leads to this footnote:
*Hardware and software requirements apply. No additional charge. Feature availability may vary by device. Some editions excluded. More details at Windows - Microsoft Windows
Last week, Microsoft took the "free upgrade for everyone" story to the next level, with Reuters reporting that Myerson told them, in a telephone interview, "We are upgrading all qualified PCs, genuine and non-genuine, to Windows 10."
At Microsoft, "non-genuine" means improperly licensed and pirated copies, and the Reuters story quotes Myerson as discussing Microsoft's desire to "re-engage" with hundreds of millions of Windows users in China, where most are running unlicensed pirated copies of Windows.
I confirmed that quote via email with a Microsoft spokesperson and also asked whether the deal applied worldwide. Here's our complete exchange on the subject:
And on the "free upgrades for pirates" surprise announce, does that apply worldwide?
The upgrade applies to any market.
The first impression from Myerson's remarks was that Microsoft was essentially offering an amnesty program, as the company "re-engages" with pirates worldwide. Get an upgrade, they appeared to be saying, and come back to the fold. All is forgiven, and by the way can we interest you in Microsoft services like Skype and Office 365?
But a follow-up statement from Microsoft, one that has clearly been vetted by lawyers and top management, arrived less than 24 hours later and is chock-full of qualifiers:
The statement came in two pieces. First:
The consumer free upgrade offer for Windows 10 applies to qualified new and existing devices running Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1. Some editions are excluded from the consumer free upgrade - including Windows 7 Enterprise, Windows 8/8.1 Enterprise, and Windows RT/RT 8.1. Active Software Assurance customers in volume licensing have the benefit to upgrade to other Windows 10 enterprise offerings.