Microsoft

Microsoft's Windows 10 is free for pirates? The bait-and-switch

There are sound strategic reasons for why Microsoft is willing to allow even pirated versions of Windows to be upgraded to Windows 10 for free. Tony Bradley explains.

Last week, at the WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Community) summit in China, Microsoft announced that Windows 10 is expected to officially launch this summer. It also stunned the tech world with news that even pirated versions of Windows will be eligible for the free upgrade to Windows 10. At face value, it may seem like Microsoft is simply caving and giving digital amnesty to millions who are using Windows illegally, but there's most likely a method to the madness.

There are two possible motives for allowing pirated versions of Windows to be upgraded for free. Microsoft appears to be going through a transition in terms of the Windows business model. It's also possible that Microsoft could pull the plug on those pirated versions of Windows 10 at some point in the future.

Hook 'em

It's a tried and true strategy that has worked for centuries. It's a twist on the classic "puppy dog close." Give consumers enough of a taste to get them hooked, and then turn them into paying customers.

Mobile device updates have changed user expectations, and Apple has already paved the way with Mac OS X for making upgrades to the desktop OS free for all users. While Microsoft has been clear that its magnanimous gift of free Windows 10 will expire after one year, I won't be surprised in the least if that policy changes and Windows upgrades remain free in perpetuity.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will transition to a Windows-as-a-Service or Windows 365 type model. Even that could be construed as a free version of Windows, where customers are really just paying for additional perks and benefits.

Regardless of how all that plays out, though, the reality is that the world had shifted, and Microsoft has to shift with it. That means finding new ways to monetize services and generate revenue. The bottom line is that Microsoft needs as many customers as possible to be invested in the Windows 10 ecosystem so it has the largest possible pool of potential customers for whatever products and services it chooses to market through the OS.

Shut 'em down

There has also been some speculation that with Windows 10, automatic updates may not be optional for customers. Reading the fine print of what Microsoft described for the free upgrades, it seems like updates might be a condition of using the OS.

Paul Thurrott pointed out a line that states Microsoft will keep the new OS current for the supported lifetime of the device at no additional charge. "This suggests to me that keeping Windows 10 up-to-date going forward is not optional. That in order to get this offer -- or perhaps just to get Windows 10 as a consumer, regardless -- will require you to let Microsoft keep your system up-to-date."

It's possible that Microsoft could offer a free update to Windows 10 as bait to get those running pirated versions of Windows to make the switch. Then it could push out an update that flips a switch to block or disable all Windows systems that don't have a valid activation code. If there's no way to opt out of the updates, there would be no way for those running "pirated" versions of Windows 10 to prevent the update.

The first strategy is much more likely. Microsoft has much more to gain from building the biggest potential market for Windows goods and services than it does from kicking millions of users out of the Windows ecosystem. Maybe it can separate those who are actually buying goods and services from those who are truly freeloading and just shut down those systems that aren't contributing anything to the bottom line anyway.

What move do you think Microsoft will make? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

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