Microsoft will offer a free upgrade to Windows 10 to users running pirated copies of earlier editions.
The company also narrowed the launch date of the upgrade to "this summer," although it did not get more specific than that. Previously, the firm has said it would release Windows 10 this fall, which most experts interpreted as October because of past debut dates.
Reuters first reported on Microsoft's plan to offer Windows 10 free of charge to pirates.
The company is going to upgrade "all qualified PCs, genuine and non-genuine, to Windows 10," Microsoft confirmed today, reiterating what Terry Myerson, the chief of Microsoft's operating systems group, told Reuters. "Non-genuine" is Microsoft-speak for illegal copies.
The move would be unprecedented for Microsoft, which has spent years, devoted significant resources and developed numerous technologies to battle piracy, notably in the enormous Chinese market, where an estimated three-fourths of all installed software is pirated.
"They've done 'get legal' programs before, but those have always come with some kind of cost," said Michael Silver, an analyst with Gartner, referring to various initiatives, including one in 2007 aimed at prompting users to buy legitimate licenses.
Microsoft elaborated in a statement. "Anyone with a qualified device can upgrade to Window 10, including those with pirated copies of Windows," a company spokesperson said. "We believe customers over time will realize the value of properly licensing Windows and we will make it easy for them to move to legitimate copies."
It was unclear what limitations, if any, Microsoft meant with the "qualified device" comment.
The free Windows 10 upgrade will be offered to devices running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, but not those running older editions, including the now-retired Windows XP or its flop of a follow-up, Windows Vista.
The restrictions will leave a sizable minority of Chinese Windows-powered PCs out in the cold. According to Web analytics firm Net Applications, 38% of all personal computers in China ran Windows XP or Vista last month; a majority -- 52% -- ran Windows 7, while another 8% ran Windows 8 or 8.1.
"Microsoft is trying to build an ecosystem around Windows 10, and this would let them count the Windows devices running pirated copies," said Silver when asked to speculate about Microsoft's motivation for the move.
If Microsoft can entice hordes of consumers to upgrade to Windows 10, especially the huge numbers now running Windows 7, it will be able to build a bigger pool of potential customers for the services it shills as well as for apps from third-party developers. The lack of apps, caused in part by Windows 8's fiasco, has branded Windows as an also-ran OS in a world where mobile is king, queen and court. To recover, Microsoft has pulled out the stops on Windows 10 uptake.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.