Microsoft preps for Windows 10 upgrade push

As uptake of its new operating system slows, the company appears to be laying the groundwork for an aggressive effort to convince consumers to move on from Windows 7 and 8.1.

One-way road to Microsoft Windows
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Windows 10 is now on more than 148 million PCs, according to data from analytics vendor Net Applications. But the rate at which users are moving to the new operating system seems to be slowing.

In fact, Windows 10, which was released July 29 and got its first update in November, no longer outpaces the cadence at which Windows 7 was adopted at the same point after its release in late 2009 and early 2010. And Microsoft officials have apparently taken note.

The clearest evidence for that comes from the increasingly aggressive ways the company is promoting the new operating system. In addition to offering free upgrades for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 devices, Microsoft is touting Windows 10 as the brains inside its own new devices and those of its traditional hardware partners, like Lenovo, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

In December, the company went further, according to Josh Mayfield, the software engineer who created GWX Control Panel, a tool designed to get rid of the "Get Windows 10" applet, which Microsoft installed on consumer and small-business Windows 7 and 8.1 PCs in March and activated in June. (GWX is shorthand for Get Windows 10, hence the name of Mayfield's tool.)

Mayfield said Microsoft apparently began prepping Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 PCs for a more aggressive Windows 10 upgrade scheme in late November.

"Over Thanksgiving weekend, I started getting reports that the Windows Update 'AllowOSUpgrade' setting was getting flipped back on on a number of people's PCs, and it keeps resetting itself at least once a day if they switch it back off," he said. "This is new behavior, and it does leave your PC vulnerable to unwanted Windows 10 upgrade behavior."

Mayfield tracks what Microsoft is doing so he can keep his GWX Control Panel up to date with any features required to block the Windows 10 upgrade from appearing on PCs and automatically beginning to install.

A Nov. 24 update to GWX Control Panel added background monitoring so users wouldn't have to relaunch the app to detect changes in Microsoft's upgrade strategy. At that time, Mayfield began hearing from users that their PCs were being switched from a "do-not-upgrade-to-Windows-10" status to a "do-upgrade" state -- often several times a day.

Microsoft has repeatedly redeployed its original Get Windows 10 nag app on PCs, often with undocumented changes, even if the PC already had the app or the user had uninstalled it. "Microsoft has released this update several times," said Mayfield. "It doesn't change the name of the update, but every version is new, with new binary files."

New 'upgrade scenarios'

Documentation for the December changes to Windows Update did not spell out what was new. But Microsoft did say this: "This update enables support for additional upgrade scenarios from Windows 7 to Windows 10, and provides a smoother experience when you have to retry an operating system upgrade because of certain failure conditions. This update also improves the ability of Microsoft to monitor the quality of the upgrade experience."

Said Mayfield: "They're telling [the PC's] Windows Update client that this computer can be upgraded to Windows 10. [The Windows Update client] is constantly checking settings several times an hour. It's fully aware of the Windows 10 upgrade.

"They're laying the groundwork for something."

That "something" is expected to be an unusually robust effort by Microsoft to boost Windows 10 adoption. The company wants to have the operating system on 1 billion devices by 2018. Since many enterprises aren't expected to move en masse from Windows 7 to Windows 10 before 2017, Microsoft is focusing on getting the software onto as many consumer devices as it can.

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No need to ask

In October, Terry Myerson, the Microsoft executive who runs the company's More Personal Computing group, said Microsoft would try to convince Windows 7 and 8.1 users to upgrade to Windows 10. Rather than wait for them to proactively request the new operating system, Microsoft will instead automatically send the upgrade to PCs via Windows Update.

The company envisions a two-step process: It will first add the Windows 10 upgrade to the Windows Update list on Windows 7 and 8.1 systems as an "optional" item. Then, this year -- it's not clear exactly when, though it's likely to be sooner rather than later -- Microsoft will shift the Windows 10 upgrade from optional to "recommended." Updates on that list are automatically downloaded and installed.

Even after that second-level push begins, users will still be able to opt out, Myerson promised in October. But the company is clearly expecting a large portion of users to let the upgrade proceed.

Gregg Keizer contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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