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

Gregg Keizer | June 23, 2015
Windows 10's prime spokesman said Sunday that previewers would get a free copy of the operating system.

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.


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