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'Free' As In Windows

I came across this article by Matt Hanson over at TechRadar the other days while searching for something else.

When was the last time you had to enter in your Windows 10 product key? This thought struck me earlier this week when we were talking about building and upgrading PCs.

I realised that on a few of my PCs, I’ve not had to enter in the Windows 10 product key for years, despite numerous upgrades and even fresh installations of Windows 10 itself. Over the years, some of the PCs have been upgraded so many times that one could argue that they are no longer the same machines that Windows 10 was originally installed on. Sort of like the Ship of Theseus that Vision was talking about at the end of WandaVision.

Now, with previous versions of Windows, every time you reinstalled, you’d need to enter in your product key. These days, Windows 10 seems to run perfectly fine without one - except for a watermark encouraging you to activate Windows 10.

And, if you have activated Windows 10 once before with a product key, that seems to be enough, no matter how many times you do fresh reinstall - which completely wipes the hard drive.

So, what’s happening? Has Microsoft come up with a way to tie in the Windows 10 product key with your hardware? I would have thought it would also tie into your Microsoft account, but then I reset a PC and signed in with a local account instead - and Windows 10 was happily activated without an issue.

Or, does Microsoft not really care that much? I suspect it’s a bit of both.

I came across this myself when I recently set up a Windows 10 virtual machine on my Mac — if you ignore Microsoft's urging and don't enter a serial number when you do the installation, Windows 10 will run just fine, occasionally nagging on startup. You won't be able to customise the appearance, but that seems to be the only downside.

But, why wouldn’t Microsoft care? This is, after all, the company that tries to get you to use its Edge browser and Bing search engine at every opportunity – so why would it suddenly become so carefree about Windows 10?

That’s sort of the answer. You see, it’s in Microsoft’s interests to get as many people on Windows 10 as possible for a simple reason: as a trojan horse for Edge and Bing. The amount of valuable ad money and user information Microsoft would get from more people using Edge and Bing is huge, and by getting people onto Windows 10 as quickly as possible – which has both of those deeply integrated – it can help boost the userbase of those services.

And it needs all the help it can get. While the new Chromium-based Edge browser is gaining in popularity – it recently overtook Firefox – it still languishes miles behind Google’s Chrome.

And Bing is doing even worse, with the search engine nowhere near as popular as Google’s… Google.

So, Microsoft will want to get more people using them, and to do that it needs to knock down the biggest barrier to entry: paying for Windows 10.

That’s right. I think Microsoft should give Windows 10 away for free.

Unfortunately, as Matt points out at the end of the article, a 'free' Windows 10 would most likely end up infused with advertising and tracking.

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