Microsoft kills TechNet, but the fate of its software licenses is murky

TechNet sales end Aug. 31, but can subscribers use their already-purchased software beyond TechNet's demise?

The feast is over for developers, system admins, and other IT pros who've used the TechNet Subscription service to gorge on all-you-can-eat access to Microsoft technologies. The company announced it's ending the TechNet service and directing the community toward alternatives such as the TechNet Evaluation Center, the Microsoft Virtual Academy, and TechNet Forums. But it isn't at all clear if TechNet licenses -- the ones users have already bought and paid for -- will live beyond TechNet's demise.

The TechNet Subscription is still available for now in the U.S. Microsoft Store. Aug. 31 will be the last day to purchase a subscription; purchased subscriptions can be activated through Sept. 30. Subscribers will continue to enjoy all the same level of access until their subscriptions end. Microsoft explained its reasoning thusly:

As IT trends and business dynamics have evolved, so has Microsoft's set of offerings for IT professionals who are looking to learn, evaluate and deploy Microsoft technologies and services. In recent years, we have seen a usage shift from paid to free evaluation experiences and resources. As a result, Microsoft has decided to retire the TechNet Subscriptions service.

The company denies its decision is a direct response to piracy concerns, such as subscribers sharing or selling their license keys. "Although the TechNet Subscriptions service has experienced piracy and license misuse in the past, there was no single factor in the decision to retire the TechNet Subscriptions service."

Microsoft is trying to spin the move as an effort "to better meet the needs of the growing IT professional community," per its official announcement, but the news isn't sitting well with plenty of techies out there. Among those mourning its passing are IT pros who use TechNet at home to stay on top of the latest Microsoft technologies. One commenter on ZDNet wrote:

There are a lot of us out there that use Technet for the home lab to keep ahead of what the enterprise is running so that when new stuff does hit the enterprise sector we know what it looks like and how to interact. Or in the case of Win8, what to avoid or how to mitigate problems. Individual consultants with lower budgets are definitely in that boat, but I know IT folks who pay to keep one about, and I personally have one because I lost my company-paid subscription after a layoff.

While TechNet was never intended as a product for developers, in fact many individual and small business developers -- as well as consultants who can't afford or refuse to pay for a four-times-as-expensive MSDN subscription -- rely on TechNet to keep up on the latest Microsoft software. Just three years ago, in an apparent bid to expand use of the service, Microsoft slashed the price of TechNet. Many developers and consultants -- in addition to admins and IT professionals -- succumbed to the deeply discounted $199 price tag ($149 for annual renewals) just to make sure they had the latest bits in hand, should the need arise.

Microsoft's official distinction between TechNet and MSDN leaves a great big gray area: "The software provided with TechNet Subscriptions is designed for hands-on IT Professionals to evaluate Microsoft software and plan deployments. The software provided with MSDN Subscriptions is available for evaluation, development, and testing purposes."

Trevor Pott, writing in The Register, put it succinctly:

I use TechNet to build the "structure" of my testlab environment: a domain controller, a file server, an SQL server, and so forth. These are the types VMs that I will need for years at a time to maintain my testlab environment. I supplement these with free/eval VMs for application servers and so forth because these VMs won't be around for very long... After they've served their purpose there's no reason to keep them around and it isn't worth my time to fight Microsoft's maddening DRM by applying a licence at VM creation and then attempting to recover it at VM destruction ... our testlabs couldn't function without those long-term copies provided by TechNet.

Here's the crux of the post-TechNet problem: The 'Softies haven't been clear on whether you'll be able to continue using your TechNet-registered software after Microsoft kills the program. Last year Microsoft unilaterally changed the terms of its TechNet licenses. Prior to July 2012, paying for TechNet gave you a perpetual license for all of the programs available through TechNet. But in July 2012, Microsoft changed the wording of its TechNet Subscription Agreement:

The subscription provides you with access to software and associated benefits. When your subscription concludes, you will no longer have access to the software or any associated benefits and must discontinue your use of the software... You may not use the software if you do not have an active subscription... The subscription is provided through a private computer network that Microsoft operates... The technology or other means Microsoft uses may hinder or otherwise affect your use of the subscription.

Several industry observers, including Ed Bott at ZDNet, assured us at the time "that doesn't mean that the software itself will stop working, of course. Instead, the license expires along with the subscription, and you're expected to stop using the evaluation copies." But there's been no confirmation that I can find from Microsoft. And for those of us who started with TechNet before July 2012, there's no explanation in the funeral announcement about retroactively downgraded rights -- will keys issued prior to July 2012 continue to be valid? -- and whether Microsoft will use that "private computer network" to cancel, limit, or in some other way make our TechNet software un-genuine, in either the short or long term.

TechNet used to be one of Microsoft's great gifts to IT professionals. Now it's devolving into an unholy mess.

This story, "Microsoft kills TechNet, but the fate of its software licenses is murky," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.