The Windows 10 Free Upgrade of 2015

Microsoft's Shenanigans


In early June 2015, a little Windows 10 notification icon icon appeared in the notification area of many computers running Windows 7 and Windows 8, offering a free upgrade to Windows 10, scheduled for release later that summer. The icon appeared only after a small program, downloaded automatically or manually through Windows Update, examined your computer and determined that you were eligible.

Windows 10 upgrade notification

If you clicked on the icon, a screen popped up that would let you "reserve" your free copy of Windows 10. It asked for your e-mail address, but it was very easy to skip that and reserve your copy anyway. You didn't even have to enter your name or anything else.

So, when you reserved your copy, you didn't actually get registered with Microsoft or anything. What it meant, simply, was your computer would automatically download Windows 10, once it was released.

Microsoft was being cheeky calling it a "reservation", as if they would run out of Windows if you don't reserve yours! Of course, that's not the case, since it's just a download. Frankly, the upgrade application should have said something like "Click here to enable automatic background download" instead of calling it a "reservation". Microsoft was intentionally fostering a sense of urgency, to increase the percentage of users that would enable the download (that is, make a "reservation"). We'll learn a little more about why this was later in this article.

Who was eligible for the free upgrade

If you were running Windows 7 or Windows 8 that was purchased at retail (even that $40 special Windows 8 upgrade), or if Windows 7 or Windows 8 came pre-installed on your computer (called the OEM edition), then you were eligible for the free upgrade.

If you ran the Starter or Home editions of Windows 7 or Windows 8, then you got Windows 10 Home. Likewise, if you ran Windows 7 Professional, Windows 7 Ultimate, or Windows 8 Pro, you got Windows 10 Pro.

Earlier versions of Windows, such as Windows Vista or Windows XP, were not eligible. Also, tablets running Windows RT (which is a variant of Windows 8) were not eligible, as there is no RT variant of Windows 10.

For Windows 7 or Windows 8 Enterprise edition (only available through volume licensing), and the volume license editions of Windows 7 Professional or Windows 8 Pro, there were technically no free upgrades available. However, computers running these versions/editions were probably eligible for a free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, depending on how the computer was originally licensed with Windows (the details on this are beyond the scope of this article). If you don't work for a large company, school, or government agency, you most likely do not use any volume license editions of Windows.

Why was it free?

As you can imagine, a successful and powerful company in a highly competitive and fast-paced market doesn't give away a product for free because of great benevolence. Offering free Windows 10 upgrades for certain users made economic sense for Microsoft, at least in their estimation.

As noted above, it was only free for computers running the editions of Windows targeted to home users and small business. Companies that had deployed Windows Enterprise edition or Windows virtual desktops were not eligible to upgrade to the same edition for free, and had to pay the same price for upgrades as with prior versions, either through Software Assurance subscriptions or through one-time licensing purchases. And manufacturers of computers, laptops, and most tablets still pay Microsoft for each device sold with Windows.

So, granting free upgrades to this limited set of users is mainly a reflection of the fact that most home users and small businesses rarely buy and install Windows operating system upgrades on their computers. They tend to continue using whatever version of Windows a computer came with until it's time to replace the computer. So it's basic economics—the segment of the market with very low demand gets a price cut.

Additional downward price pressure came from the following:

  • The Windows Store, through which Microsoft sells apps, is a relatively new revenue source for Microsoft. Windows Store apps will more and more require Windows 10 for full functionality (meaning limited or no functionality on Windows 8). Windows 7 doesn't support Windows Store apps at all. Individuals, as opposed to users in a large business, are most likely to download apps from the Windows Store, so making sure they can cheaply and easily upgrade the operating system is of benefit to Microsoft.
  • Certain Windows 10 features steer users to Microsoft's revenue-producing services. For example, Cortana, the voice-recognition assistant built-in to Windows 10, does searches through Bing (Microsoft's search service), which helps take advertising revenue away from Google's search. Also, as you'll notice right away when you first use Windows 10, the new Start menu has advertisements presenting Microsoft subscription products, such as Office 365 for productivity, Xbox Live subscriptions to play online games with other subscribers and get discounts on game purchases, Groove Music to buy tunes, OneDrive extra online storage, and Skype Credit to make calls from your computer to conventional phones.
  • Unless you make great efforts to prevent it, Windows 10 tracks your usage and online activity more than any previous version of Windows, and sends information back to Microsoft for their use in planning future features. This is called telemetrics. The more users they have sending telemetrics, the better the value of the aggregate data.

Microsoft decides to be pushy and deceitful

As you can see now, Microsoft wasn't grudgingly giving away their wares merely because market conditions didn't justify their preferred price. Each additional user running Windows 10 can produce revenue and other benefits for them on a continuing basis. And they weren't shy about their ambitions. Around the time of its release, top executives at Microsoft announced the company's goal of getting Windows 10 installed on a billion computers and devices worldwide within a few years. To meet this goal, during the year of free upgrades, Microsoft exhibited surprisingly aggressive and disrespectful behavior towards users, which became downright obnoxious near the end.

It started in June 2015 with the pop-up notifications appearing frequently in the system tray (near the bottom-right corner of the screen). This was driven by software called GWX (an acronym for "Get Windows 10"), installed automatically through Windows Update.

The Windows Update system is a method by which Microsoft can run any executable program it wants on your Windows-based computer, meaning all along they could have put ads or made any changes they wanted to your computer very easily, so long as you had automatic updating enabled. But, as long as Microsoft has had automatic updating integrated into Windows, going way back to 1999, the system only ever downloaded executables that fixed software bugs, or added new features to Windows that you specifically selected. Nagging messages from Microsoft, if any, were minimal.

Just after the initial release of Windows 10, at the end of July 2015, this changed. The pop-ups in the corner morphed into a large window in the middle of the screen.

GWX Notification

Notification window as it appeared July 30, 2015

The notification window was clearly designed to goad the user into installing Windows 10. For example, there was never a "No thanks" or "Decline" button; there was only a "Reserve your free upgrade" button. In December 2015, two buttons appeared, "Upgrade Now" or "Upgrade Tonight". If you simply closed the window, it would come back. On their many web pages about the upgrade offer, Microsoft at first didn't describe any options to disable the GWX software. Third parties stepped in, releasing tools such as Never10 by GRC, GWX Stopper, and the GWX Control Panel, all of which removed the GWX advertisements and/or prevented you from accidentally upgrading to Windows 10.

In the past, updates and any other configuration options relating to Windows were presented clearly to help you make the right choice, with detailed explanations. This was because Microsoft had generally acted as a partner in managing your software to best serve your needs. Upon the release of Windows 10, Microsoft became a pushy, conniving huckster, where the goal is to get Windows 10 on your computer even if it's not something you would normally have chosen.

Taking control of your computer

It wasn't just deceptive messaging. In September 2015, users noticed that Windows Update was downloading up to 6 GB of files, even when they hadn't made a reservation or selected the option to upgrade to Windows 10. Microsoft stated this was to pre-position the files needed for the upgrade, so the process would go more quickly when the user decided to upgrade. Such a large download, initiated without a user's knowledge, was unprecedented.

It's because of this many commentators described GWX as equivalent to adware or nagware at best, and malware at worst. Think about it. As mentioned, Windows Update is a channel by which Microsoft can push software to fix buggy files, or add features the user seeks out (such as the Service Packs of the past). GWX was neither of those. Microsoft took advantage of the fact that almost everyone has automatic updates enabled to install this application without the user requesting it. Once installed, it presented annoying pop-ups with no way to select an option not to do it again, and downloaded other software in the background. It adjusted and updated itself upon command from Microsoft, to serve the interests of Microsoft, and not necessarily the user. Third-party software developers published removal tools. The malware analogue is certainly accurate!

It got worse. Apart from GWX, the Windows 10 Upgrade itself showed up as an update in Windows Update, alongside the usual security patches and feature updates. It was listed in the Optional category, normally meaning you have to manually opt to install it, by clicking a checkbox. In October 2015 it managed check itself! As a result, for many users, it installed automatically during the ordinary nightly check for updates. People woke up in the morning to find their computers prompting them to accept a license agreement, or click OK to proceed, without making clear exactly what they were about to do, and then sat and watched their computers spend possibly a few hours upgrading to Windows 10. We saw funny headlines at the time on trade magazine websites such as "Microsoft 'accidentally' upgrades Win7 and 8.1 PCs to Windows 10". Microsoft fixed the problem, then issued an official statement that essentially said, "Oops! Sorry!"

Then in May 2016, it happened again, but this time it was intentional and Microsoft didn't apologize. Instead of Windows 10 being an Optional update, it was presented in Windows Update as a Recommended update. Most users have their computers set to automatically install Recommended updates. So, like the prior October, users saw a dialog that had two options: "Upgrade Now" and then a huge "OK". Users thought that clicking OK just acknowledged the message, and nothing more would happen, since there wasn't the expected "Cancel" or "Don't Upgrade" button. Wrong! If a user clicked OK, Microsoft decided that meant, "Don't upgrade now, upgrade tonight!". So, again, users found their computers upgrading to Windows 10 when they didn't intend for that to happen.

At the very least, none of this malware-like activity occurred on business computers that were joined to a Microsoft Active Directory domain. This fit with Microsoft's long-standing support for business, cooperation with system administrators to best support Microsoft software, and respect for administrators in managing their systems as they wish. Maybe in the olden days, but not anymore! It's the Windows 10 era now! In January 2016, GWX appeared on domain-joined computers that updated directly from Windows Update or through third-party software update managers such as Shavlik Protect (now called Ivanti Patch).

GWX Notification on domain-joined computers

Notification window as it appeared on domain-joined computers in 2016.

Users without administrator permissions generally couldn't initiate the upgrade, and Microsoft issued updated Group Policy templates to allow domain administrators to disable the upgrade offer, so on a well-managed network, no computers were upgraded accidentally. However, although it's generally not a best practice, some businesses let their users have administrator privileges. In addition, Microsoft forced administrators to change their Group Policy settings to block something Microsoft decided to push onto their network shows disrespect for administrators' autonomy and for the value of their time, not to mention having put a pop-up message on screen encouraging users to pester their administrators to upgrade.


Many users were utterly furious, and rightly so. When you sit down to your computer, it's usually because you have work to do. It's bad enough to find out that because you clicked OK on a message from Microsoft, this has cost you at least a few hours of your time watching your computer upgrade itself, not to mention the embarrassment and regret of feeling like you did something wrong. An operating system upgrade is a major operation, which shouldn't be done without testing and a plan to roll back. On some computers, Windows 10 just may not work well. Many older applications and hardware that worked with Windows 7 won't work with Windows 10. This is why, for many years, the best way to upgrade to a new version of Windows has been to purchase a new computer, and run it alongside the old computer to migrate applications and functions on your own schedule, especially now that the cost of hardware is at historical lows. But, Microsoft decided that they'll take control of these decisions for you, and later for the users on a managed business network.

After the upgrade offer ended in July 2016, GWX shut itself down, and hasn't been seen again. So this sordid episode is over, for now.

The sorry lesson, though, is these kinds of things will continue to happen. Newer generations of users are more accustomed to automated technologies with minimal worries about administrative decisions, and are more accepting of such impudent activities by technology providers. Many other providers of technology, such as Google and Apple, have leveraged their control over users' applications and data for years. Now that Microsoft has done this on their venerable Windows operating system, there are no more options for reliably maintaining the control a user or system administrator might require in a business environment. The many variants of Linux and BSD operating systems, which have been around for decades, can still offer this kind of control, but the difficulties these operating systems have had meeting the needs of mainstream business users mean additional challenges for implementation.