Sorry: Big businesses who use Microsoft's products will not receive free upgrades to Windows 10. Microsoft is, however, letting companies upgrade to Windows 10 as conservatively as they wish - and accelerate once they're on board with the new OS.
Microsoft framed its new enterprise upgrade policies - known as the "Long Term Servicing Branch" and the "Current Branch for Business" - in the context of Windows as a service, a little-known but intriguing aspect of the Windows 10 upgrades. Microsoft reiterated Friday that consumers will be able to upgrade to Windows 10 for free from Windows 7 or Windows 8 devices, and receive free feature upgrades to Windows 10 "for the supported lifetime" of the device--whatever that means. A spokeswoman said that Microsoft still won't clarify how all that will work.
Meanwhile, Microsoft effectively requires big businesses to subscribe to its Software Assurance program, which supplies patches and feature updates on a timely schedule. Consumers may enjoy receiving new features on a regular basis, but enterprises don't. The Windows updates need to be tested against legacy applications to ensure they don't break when the updates are deployed.
Windows 7 Enterprise and Windows 8/8.1 Enterprise users are not eligible for the free upgrades to Windows 10. But Software Assurance subscribers using those operating systems will be able to participate in one of two branches: the conservative, Long-Term Servicing Branch, or the somewhat more aggressive Current Branch for Business.
Slow and steady
The Long Term Servicing Branch is basically fixed in stone. One of its features for enterprises is that it will not add any new features for the duration of mainstream (five years) and extended support (also five years). However, Microsoft will deliver patches and other security updates on a regular basis. Microsoft said it actually plans to roll out additional Long Term branches on a periodic basis, but customers won't be obligated to upgrade; IT managers can jump their systems from branch to branch, skip a branch, or refuse to upgrade at all.
Microsoft said that the first Long Term Servicing branch would be rolled out at about the time that Windows 10 is released to consumers.
For slightly more adventurous Windows shops, Microsoft will offer the Current Branch for Businesses. Current Branch updates will be rolled out after "quality and application compatibility has been assessed in the consumer market," Microsoft said--which likely means the company plans to work out any OS kinks with consumers before deploying a more polished version to businesses.
"Based on what we are hearing from customers, we expect most will take a mixed approach in how they keep their Windows 10 systems up to date," Jim Alkove, the lead of the Windows enterprise program management team, in a blog post announcing the new rollout. "They will likely target a different pace of updates for different users and systems, depending on the specific business needs of each group."
As might be expected, PC and peripheral makers will need to ensure their products are compatible and issue driver updates where needed. That's always caused a few headaches where new OSes are concerned.
The story behind the story: Many businesses looked at Windows 8 and essentially said, "pass" - preferring to remain with Windows 7 (or even Windows XP). Microsoft desperately wants those customers to sign up for Windows 10 and continue paying those sweet annual fees. One of the trouble spots Microsoft identified in its recent conference call was Japan, which chief financial officer Amy Hood called a "non-annuity geography" for us - financialspeak for a country whose consumers and businesses prefer one-time purchases of Windows and Office. The bottom line? Microsoft is going to bend over backwards to make the business transition to Windows 10 as easy as possible.