Windows 10 upgrades will be free for existing Windows users -- at first

With a free upgrade path from Windows 7 and up, Microsoft is going all-out to get existing users onto Windows 10 -- but what awaits afterward?

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Microsoft turned heads in its Windows 10 announcement event today -- a holographic headset! an augmented-reality API for Windows 10! -- but some of the most important news about Windows 10 was also the most quotidian and the least defined.

On the bright side, Windows 10 will be offered as a free upgrade to Windows 7, 8, and 8.1, as well as Windows Phone, during the first year of Windows 10's release. An offer of that scope and magnitude all but guarantees those frustrated with Windows 8 -- and maybe those still running Windows 7 who are worried about being left behind -- will hop on board.

Any users who upgrade after that one-year window, however, will have to pay for the upgrade.

Microsoft emphasized that this shouldn't be misinterpreted: "There is no fundamental shift to our business model that we are telegraphing or announcing today." In other words, user versions of Windows 10 probably won't be provided by default via a pay-as-you-go licensing model, akin to Microsoft's offer for enterprises via Software Assurance.

The not-so-good news: There are no concrete clues about how much people will have to pay when the time comes, whether for a full copy or an upgrade version. That said, Microsoft's spokespeople noted that Windows 10 will be priced to be attractive to both users and enterprises.

Based on recent history, it seems any worries about the cost of individual copies of Windows may be a red herring. Sales of new, stand-alone copies of Windows have been generally dwarfed by the sales of PCs with Windows preloaded, which is how most users wind up with the OS.

Between Microsoft's proposed one-year free upgrade window for Windows 10 and the flood of sub-$300 notebooks and sub-$100 Windows tablets -- costing only marginally more than a full-blown copy of Windows 8.1 -- it's never been easier or cheaper to run Windows.

Another interesting tidbit, only touched on in the Q&A following the announcement, was the fate of the long-reviled Windows RT. Microsoft's Windows chief, Terry Myerson, stated at the event that plans are in place for an update to Windows RT, "but we haven't worked out all of the details yet."

Given how RT and its devices have been a near-total non-event in the Windows world, upgrading RT itself seems a waste of resources. Wouldn't Microsoft save itself a lot of trouble by simply offering a trade-in plan where existing RT devices are swapped, maybe for a nominal fee, for more current x86-compatible hardware running Windows 10? It's hard to think of a better, more customer-friendly way to kill off RT once and for all.

[Addendum: Microsoft has provided additional Windows 10 licensing details in a blog post, including notes about upgrades to the OS itself: "Once a Windows device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will continue to keep it current for the supported lifetime of the device – at no additional charge," says the post. However, in a footnote, it says that with regard to the free upgrade to Windows 10, "Some editions excluded," although it does not specify beyond that.]

[Addendum: A report at The Verge states that Microsoft is working on a separate update for Windows RT devices that "will have some of the functionality of Windows 10."]

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