Sorting through the changes in Windows licensing

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    Sorting through the changes in Windows licensing

    Susan BradleyBy Susan Bradley

    With consumer versions of Windows 10 offered free for the first year, many users have questions about licensing.

    Windows users have never “owned” the OS they paid for, but Win10 has significantly changed the rules.

    Tying the OS license to specific hardware

    Windows licensing has always been murky. Windows 7, for example, had retail, original equipment manufacturer (OEM), and enterprise editions. In theory, OEM editions were tied to the hardware they came on. Retail versions, however, were “portable”; if, for example, you purchased Win7 separately from the PC, you could move that copy from machine to machine — as long as you no longer used the OS on the old PC. (Most retail versions of Windows were used for upgrading or for hand-built PCs.) Usually, you had to reauthorize your copy of Windows for the new system, but in most cases that step was a formality.

    Long-term, portability is not part of the free version of Windows 10. When you install Win10, Microsoft’s activation servers create and store a unique ID based on the old key plus the hardware in your machine. The Win10 upgrade will stay tied to that upgraded system and your original Win7/8 key will no longer be valid. (You can roll back to Win7, but you’re not allowed to run both your original OS and Win10, say, in a virtual or dual-boot setup.)

    A Microsoft spokesperson stated: “After the first year, you would not be able to move the installation to a different device, as the upgrade is specific to your device, not your license or Windows account. After that first year, for devices not upgraded, you would have to purchase a copy of Windows 10 through the Microsoft Store or Microsoft retail partners.”

    To make things even more confusing, if you eventually purchase a retail edition of the Win10 license, you will be able to move that copy from one computer to another — that version comes with portability rights.

    You can, however, still upgrade a Win10 system. As with earlier Windows versions (typically tied to the Windows Genuine Advantage program), you’ll need to call Microsoft to reactivate the license if you change major parts of your computer after upgrading to Win10. (It’s usually an annoying but not too painful process.)

    Unfortunately, the types of changes that trigger a reactivation always have been — and still are — vague. For example, adding more memory generally does not require a reactivation, but changing the motherboard would. (In OEM setups, changing to a new motherboard is allowed only while the PC is still under warranty.)

    Other common questions about Win10 upgrading

    I frequently get asked whether you can reserve a free upgrade now and then actually make the upgrade a while later. That’s easy to answer: as long as you complete the upgrade before the end of July 2016, consumer versions of Win10 are free. After July, you’ll have to purchase a Windows 10 license.

    Some Windows users wonder whether they can acquire Win10 now for free and then start using it after July 2016. Typically, these folks are waiting for third-party software vendors to add Win10 support to their business applications. To delay a formal migration to Win10, the users would back up a Win7/8 machine, download and install the free Win10 upgrade (thus acquiring a new Win10 license), and then roll back to Win7/8. They would then move up to their free Win10 when they like.

    That might work; but on older systems, you’ll probably need to enter a Win10 license key. You can find it on your new Win10 installation by using a key viewer such as the NirSoft Produkey (site) utility. (Oddly, a Google search of Win10 license keys will turn up lots of sites selling keys — for a currently free product.)

    Newer systems with Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) and support for Microsoft Data Management will store the Win10 key within the system’s firmware. If you restore a Win10 image or do a clean install, the OS will find the license key itself.

    In either case, your system must first have had a successful upgrade to Win10. It will then be whitelisted in Microsoft’s product-key system as genuine. Currently, if you’re asked for a key during a reinstall of Win10, you can use a generic key (Figure 1), as noted on a Reddit page.

    Generic Win10 product key

    Figure 1. Currently, you can use a generic license key to reinstall Windows 10 (Win10 Pro shown).

    Upgrading from 32-bit Windows to 64-bit

    Retail editions of Win7, 8, and 8.1 included two media — one for 32-bit systems and another for 64-bit systems. The free Windows 10 will let you upgrade only to the same “bittedness” of the originally installed Windows. In other words, a Win7 x32 system can be upgraded only to Win10 x32. Assuming no one will want to upgrade a 64-bit system to 32 bits, the only way to upgrade from 32 bits to 64 bits is to do a clean install of the original Win7/8, using the media for the 64-bit version, and then upgrade to Win10.

    Upgrading only to like editions of Windows

    The free Win10 upgrade also doesn’t let you upgrade Windows editions. If you have Win7 Starter, Home Basic, or Home Premium installed, you’ll get Win10 Home; if you have Win7/8.1 Pro, you’ll get Win10 Pro. There’s no Win10 Ultimate, so if you have Win7 Ultimate you’ll also get Win10 Pro.

    Some Windows users have lamented the loss of Media Center in Win10. Microsoft’s Feature deprecation page notes that some systems will receive the DVD Player app for free from the Windows Store. But you’ll also be able to purchase it. There are, of course, many good third-party players available online.

    The aforementioned deprecation page lists other features that didn’t make the transition to the new OS.

    So is the current Windows 10 really free?

    Yes, but with some caveats. As has been widely reported, this free edition is available until the end of July 2016. Officially, you’ll have to pay for Win10 after that.

    But that could change. Apple users have come to expect free OS upgrades. For example, an iPhone can be upgraded for free until the newest OS no longer supports the older hardware. In some cases, you can still get the new OS, but the phone can’t use some of the new features. At that point, you usually upgrade to a newer phone because the battery no longer holds a charge — and you’re enticed by bigger screens and new capabilities.

    Eventually, Microsoft might adopt a similar model; the operating system is merely a platform for revenue-generating services and software. But as a TechNet UK blog notes, the current free version of Win10 doesn’t expire — you won’t have to pay a fee for the OS in two or three years. However, Microsoft plans to add new features to Win10, and at some point an enhancement might not work on your PC — nor might it even receive future updates.

    Can Win10 run in a VPC or dual-boot setup?

    Many cautious Windows upgraders wish to leave Win7/8 on their PCs and install Win10 on a second drive or partition. Typically, they want to copy or create an image of a Win7 setup, upgrade to Win10, and then restore the original OS on another drive/partition. Sorry, but that’s not allowed. As long as Win10 is installed, takes over the original Win7 or Win8 license. For a month after installation, Win10 lets you roll back to Win7 or Win8 — but that process removes the new OS.

    As has always been the case for Windows, virtualized copies must have their own licenses, separate from the host system. As noted in that same TechNet UK blog, the Win10 license “allows you to install only one instance of the software for use on one device, whether that device is physical or virtual. If you want to use the software on more than one virtual device, you must obtain a separate license for each instance.”

    Software — including the OS — as a service

    The old model of upgrading versions (XP to Vista to Win7 to Win8) appears to be dead. The new model will be confusing for long-term Windows users. It assumes that, for a specific machine, you’ll have to pay for Windows only once — when you buy a new PC, purchase a retail version, or sign up for volume licensing. Again, as noted in the UK TechNet blog post, the key features of Windows as a service are:

    • “You never need to pay for Windows again on the same machine and you’ll always have the latest version.
    • “No more wipe and reload upgrades.
    • “Software vendors and developers can almost guarantee that 90 percent of Windows users will have the same build.”

    Microsoft assumes that having most Windows users on the same build of the OS will make it easier for third-party publishers to write Win10 software.

    Enterprise customers should take note: To upgrade to Win10, you must have an active Software Assurance contract. If you merely bought a Win7 Enterprise license, you aren’t eligible for an upgrade to the new OS. Those with a contract will sign in to the MS volume-license center and download the Enterprise edition. You’ll also have to maintain a current Software Assurance contract for Win10 feature updates.

    Free is never without some cost. It should be no surprise that a free upgrade comes with limitations. Those for Win10 are not overly onerous, but you do need to know what they are before making the move up. Whether you can live with those limitations is entirely up to you. If not, Win7 won’t get new enhancements, but MS will issue fixes and security updates until Jan. 14, 2020; Windows 8 will expire in early 2023.


    Now I dislike MS even more, which I didn’t think was possible.  lol

    It was an interesting read though……..


    Good information to have, thanks!


    Susan Bradley writes a column for Windows Secrets.  Good stuff.


    It was a good read indeed,……………


    This makes me want to stick with Win-7 even more than before.

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