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Microsoft: Windows 10, it's on us

Microsoft said it would provide free Windows 10 upgrades to customers running either Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 on their PCs and tablets.

The unprecedented deal kicks off when Windows 10 officially releases later in 2015, and runs for one year after that. During those 12 months, users can upgrade free of charge. Microsoft, however, dodged a question Wednesday at its Windows 10 presentation about what will happen after the year's expiration, saying it had not yet worked out those details.

People with Windows Phone 8.1-powered smartphones will be able to upgrade to Windows 10 free of charge during that same 12-month post-release period.

Microsoft also confirmed what had it had only hinted at before, that Windows 10 will be a long-term operating system that will be regularly updated with features and functionality, also free of charge.

"This is so much more ... than a free one-time upgrade," said Terry Myerson, the Microsoft executive who heads the operating systems group. "Once a device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will be keeping it current for the supported lifetime of the device."

Microsoft did not clarify what "supported lifetime of the device" meant, however.

The company's standard practice until now has been to support an OS for 10 years with security updates, but fix non-security bugs or add features, if any, only during the first five. Upgrades from one edition to the next -- from Windows XP to Windows 7, or Windows 7 to Windows 8 -- have always comes with a price tag, ranging from a low of $40 to a high of $200 for consumers and small businesses.

Windows 10's free upgrade -- even though for a limited time -- and Microsoft's promise to support it with free updates and upgrades for an extended period, is an enormous change for the company. It is also one that many analysts had not only seen coming but thought long overdue.

"They needed to move to this model, from a release every few years to one with constant upgrades," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research.

Microsoft's free upgrade is essentially a consumer-only play, analysts said yesterday. Enterprises traditionally stick to their own, more conservative upgrade pace. Most corporations have annuity-like agreements -- Software Assurance -- that allow them to upgrade from one edition of Windows to another, and would be unlikely to push toward Windows 10 in the first year in any case. Gartner, for example, has said enterprises won't start deploying Windows 10 in numbers until 2018.

"For consumers it's a huge deal," said Michael Silver of Gartner in an email today. "For enterprises, it's only a big deal if they can manage the amount of change that goes with Windows 10."

And the experts agreed that the free deal would jumpstart Windows 10.

"The free upgrade is going to be huge," said Dawson.

"This should drive a big upgrade cycle," echoed Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

How big? According to a Computerworld analysis last year, Microsoft should be able to get about 18% of all Windows personal computers onto Windows 10 within seven months of its release, which would be an uptake speed record for Microsoft.

Microsoft's move follows the lead set by mobile operating systems like Google's Android and Apple's iOS -- which provide free upgrades at least annually -- and that of Apple's OS X Mac operating system, which has been free since October 2013.