Windows 10 reality check: Separating fact from fiction

Licensing, upgrade paths, ‘Windows as a Service’ — here’s the lowdown on common Windows 10 misconceptions.

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With the world officially on a collision course with Windows 10 on July 29, it’s time to clear up common misconceptions about Microsoft’s latest, evolving version of its flagship OS. Perhaps not surprising, there’s quite a bit of misinformation floating around, some of it harmless, but some of it potentially damaging to any decisions you make about Windows 10.

InfoWorld has been tracking Windows 10’s progress very closely, reporting the evolving technical details with each successive build in our popular “Where Windows 10 stands right now” report. But there’s more to Windows 10 than bits and bytes, menus and apps, Universal and otherwise -- so much, in fact, that it can be understandably confusing. Licensing, upgrade paths, Windows 10 updates -- here’s where we cut through the myths and fictions, and give you the straight dope about Windows 10, in hopes of preparing you to make the most of Microsoft’s latest, though not last, Windows release.

Fact: Windows 10 will be a free upgrade to “genuine” Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 machines

If you have a Windows 7 Service Pack 1 machine or one with Windows 8.1 Update, and it passes the “genuine” test, you qualify for a free upgrade to Windows 10. To confirm whether you’re running the genuine stuff, go to Control Panel > System and Security > System. At the bottom you should notice that “Windows is activated.”

As long as your current copy of Windows is “genuine,” the new copy of Windows 10 will be “genuine” -- and free. The caveat: You have until June 29, 2016, to make good on the upgrade.

Microsoft has repeated these facts time and again, for many months -- yet confusion remains.

Fiction: After June 29, 2016, you have to pay to keep Windows 10 updated

Easily the most pernicious misconception circulating at the moment is the belief that Windows 10 will become a pay-for-updates service once it hits its first birthday. This foggy notion has appeared in major news outlets time and again over the past few weeks, and time and again, Microsoft has denied it.

Once you’ve upgraded to Windows 10, Microsoft will continue to supply you with patches and feature upgrades at no extra cost for the life of the machine. You aren’t renting Windows 10.

As far back as January, Microsoft posted:

Once a qualified Windows device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will continue to keep it up to date for the supported lifetime of the device, keeping it more secure, and introducing new features and functionality over time -- for no additional charge.

Fiction: Participants in the Windows Insider beta test will get a free copy of Windows 10

It isn’t yet known if pirate Windows Insiders (Microsoft’s registered Windows 10 beta testers) will be able to continue in the Windows Insider program and get the latest Fast and Slow ring builds direct from Microsoft. However, if the machine they’re using does not have a “genuine” Windows 7 or 8.1 license, they’ll still be running pirate software. Microsoft says it will keep track of your license and store information about it in the Windows Store.

Fact: You can upgrade directly from the Technical Preview releases to the RTM edition

This is the first Windows beta in history where testers can upgrade from a beta build to the final version, without completely wiping their systems in the process. Microsoft has assured us it will be possible to upgrade directly from Technical Previews to the RTM version of Windows 10. More important, recent beta versions have had very few problems doing in-place upgrades, although based on decades of sad experience, I would still recommend a clean install.

Fact: Windows Media Center will be uninstalled when you upgrade to Windows 10

It’s dead, Jim. Microsoft has officially announced that you won’t get Windows Media Center in Win10 -- it will be deleted as part of the upgrade -- even if you paid for it once upon a time. If it’s any consolation, Microsoft will provide a free DVD player program for anyone who bought Windows Media Center.

Fiction: You can’t open Windows 7 backups in Windows 10

Microsoft added the capability to open Windows 7 backups in Windows 10 build 10122 -- a very important capability for Windows 7 users who have backups they need or want to use after upgrading. However, it remains to be seen whether we’ll get all of Windows 7’s backup capabilities, which were yanked in Windows 8.

Fact: OneDrive in Windows 10 sucks

It’s a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. In Windows 8.1, File Explorer shows you all of the files in OneDrive. In Windows 10, you’ll see only the files that have been synced to your machine. The demise of this “smart files” feature means that, until Microsoft fixes the problem, you will have files inside OneDrive that don’t show up in File Explorer or in many apps that access OneDrive. Paul Thurrott calls the situation “freaking terrible.” Mary Branscombe submitted a feature suggestion in November that would make it one-click easy to synchronize everything; Microsoft has responded by basically saying, “We’ll fix it sometime.”

Fiction: You need a Microsoft account to install or use Windows 10

You will be able to perform a clean install of Win10 without a Microsoft account. In fact, the old Windows 8 workarounds (notably, entering a bogus Microsoft account when prompted) still work in the current beta builds. What isn’t clear is whether you’ll be able to upgrade in place from Win7 or Win8.1 without a Microsoft account.

Fiction: Windows 10 is the last version of Windows

Yeah, sure. It’s a marketing thing. We may have Windows someday, but as in "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," the numbers don’t matter and the points don’t count.

Unknown: Microsoft will use “free” Windows customers as cannon fodder for patches

Microsoft has announced that Windows 10 Home users will be held to Microsoft’s patching schedule. To draw an analogy to Win7 and Win8.1, it’s as if all Windows 10 Home users will have Automatic Updates turned on permanently.

Windows 10 Pro is a different story. Microsoft says that Pro users “will have the ability to defer updates.” It isn’t yet clear how the feature will be implemented -- it isn’t in any beta versions as yet. It’s also unclear how long you’ll be able to go without installing the updates.

Microsoft’s record on rolling out new features isn’t horrible. But its record on rolling out security patches is a blight on the company and its reputation.

Fact: Microsoft has a lousy track record with incremental improvements to its products

Microsoft promises it’s going to improve Windows 10 at a rapid clip. It’s a noble goal, but one that’s not been met in the past. When Windows 8 rolled out, we were assured that key Metro apps -- Mail, Calendar, People, Messaging, Maps, and all the others -- would be improved over time. If that ever happened, I sure didn’t see it. With Windows 7 Ultimate we were promised extravagant extras to go along with the higher price tag, delivered someday. We didn’t get squat. Don’t get me started on Windows 8.1, Update 1, which wouldn’t install; sorta-Update 2, which fizzled; and never-appeared-Update 3. Can we trust Microsoft to keep improving Windows 10? Maybe, if there’s money in it, which leads me to …

Fact: Windows 10 has all sorts of hidden “monetizing opportunities”

I’m writing a thick book on Windows 10, and it continues to amaze me how frequently I bump into these new “features” that can -- and probably will -- be used for advertising. Front and center: Cortana. If you let it, Cortana (and its henchman Bing) not only collects every scrap of information about you -- we’re talking Googlian proportions -- but it also analyzes, slices, and dices the data to discern every possible nuance.

If you want Cortana to warn you that the traffic’s bad on your chosen route to catch the flight you booked with Bing, confirmed with mail, hey, it’s a cool capability. But all of that convenience comes at an enormous cost to your personal privacy. Cortana, by default, also intercepts all of your local searches, on your own PC, and sends the results to Bing’s big data bucket.

There’s more. The Windows 10 lock screen has an advertising opportunity, called Windows Spotlight, that’s supposed to help Windows users find unused features in Windows. WinRT programming guru WalkingCat (@h0x0d) talks about the underlying technology in two brief tweets. The Win10 Start menu has an open slot on the left side that will “Occasionally show app and content suggestions in the Start menu.” One wonders how occasionally and what suggestions. If updates are pushed onto unwilling machines, what’s to prevent Microsoft from duplicating the blatant advertising (and Keystone Kops re-re-re-patching) we’re seeing right now in “optional” update KB 3022345 and “important” update KB 3035583, which brought us Monday morning’s Windows 10 advertisements?

Fiction: Windows as a Service will ...

Let me stop you right there, bucko. “Windows as a Service” is a misnomer, one that Microsoft continues to use at its peril. “Software as a service” is a well-known euphemism for renting software (to a first approximation anyway); Office 365 is software as a service. “Windows as a Service” seems to be an excuse/explanation for a faster release cycle. I’m all for faster deployment of great new apps. But as long as Microsoft insists on using the phrase “Windows as a Service,” customers are going to wonder when they’ll have to pay the piper.

Fact: Patch Tuesday (er, Update Tuesday) is going away

Hey, it’s already happened. For months, we’ve seen oceans of patches, of all stripes, rolling out at various odd dates.

Patch Tuesday was invented to help hapless admins keep up with the flurry of patches headed out of Redmond and onto corporate machines. Whether the new Windows Update for Business will help buffer the onslaught, and how, also remains to be seen.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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