August 2, 2013
10 Hidden Benefits of Windows 8.1
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Microsoft's TechNet subscription service doesn't share the high profile of Windows or the corporate ubiquity of Office, but it does have some serious fans in the IT industry.
More than 8,000 IT pros and counting have put their name on an online petition asking Microsoft to grant TechNet a gallows reprieve. Microsoft recently announced that it will soon terminate TechNet subscriptions. Other elements of the TechNet site will remain active, but sales of new 12-month subscriptions and renewals will cease Aug. 31. Activations will end on Sept. 30, meaning the last TechNet subscriptions will disappear for good at the end of September 2014. Loyal users aren't giving up without an online fight. Cody Skidmore, a software developer who's helping lead the Save TechNet efforts, expects the group's petition to hit 10,000 signatures in the coming weeks. He said he wouldn't be surprised to reach 15,000 supporters as the group's efforts become increasingly organized and existing TechNet accounts begin expiring. By retiring TechNet, Skidmore said, Microsoft is upsetting one of its most dependable advocacy groups: IT pros. [ What can IT managers expect in Windows 8.1? Read Microsoft Releases Windows 8.1 Enterprise Preview. ] "[Microsoft] alienated the very individuals driving profits for its enterprise services," Skidmore said in an email. A TechNet subscription effectively offers a perpetual license across any device for a vast menu of Microsoft products, past, present and future, thought only for evaluation and testing purposes. Subscribers are not allowed, for instance, to use TechNet as a replacement for commercial software licenses in production environments, though enforcement is tricky. A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to comment on the petition itself, but said via email: "In an effort to better meet customers' needs, Microsoft has decided to retire the TechNet subscription service, and focus on growing its free offerings, including cloud-based evaluation experiences through the TechNet Evaluation Center, expert-led learning through the Microsoft Virtual Academy and community-moderated technical support through the TechNet forums." When Microsoft announced the end of subscriptions on the TechNet website, just after the close of its TechEd conference, the company said it was responding to changing "IT trends and business dynamics," and that there was an increasing demand for its free evaluation licenses. Microsoft's free TechNet evaluation center is one of the replacements it's promoting in lieu of TechNet subscriptions. "Free" usually has a nice ring to it, but Skidmore said the offering isn't a good substitute. "We openly dispute Microsoft's free evaluation center as a solution," Skidmore said. "The products listed there don't include any legacy products whatsoever." He also noted that there's only a single Windows 8 license, the Enterprise version, currently available. Among TechNet's benefits is that it offers a sort of living history of Microsoft software. Got a hankering to play around with Windows 3.1? That's on the list, as are other throwbacks and misfits. (Vista Enterprise, anyone?) Various versions of newer products such as Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 are also part of the package. On the other hand, you're not likely to see Microsoft offering free evaluation copies of Windows XP and other older products that remain in use today. In fact, individual emails to Microsoft from several frustrated TechNet subscribers point to a lack of access to older software versions as their biggest gripe. For new software, Skidmore said the free evaluations don't meet the needs of many businesses, especially those that take a methodical approach to testing and upgrades. "Companies are slow to adopt new products, preferring to wait until they're thoroughly tested. Many are just recently adopting Windows 7," Skidmore said. "Microsoft's evaluation center does nothing to address this. The 30-to-180-day evaluation period is still inadequate since testing is frequently prolonged, overlapping and intermittent." Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) subscriptions aren't going away, but they're considerably more expensive than TechNet. A new TechNet Pro subscription runs $349, and renewals cost $249 annually. Skidmore said the most comparable MSDN alternative would be Visual Studio Premium with MSDN -- a new subscription runs $6,119 for the first year, with annual renewals at $2,569. "[That] is unattainable for most of us," Skidmore said. Brian Jackson, who runs the blog TheITBros, said his TechNet subscription enables much of the nitty-gritty research behind the site's technical advice. "The MSDN subscription is out of my budget to purchase and to be honest, I don't know how I would continue to write some of these in-depth articles if TechNet was to go away," Jackson said via email. "Microsoft might turn me into a pirate by doing this." Software piracy is actually one of the reasons that Microsoft may be shutting the service down, though it hasn't acknowledged as much. Skidmore pointed out that piracy isn't necessarily a TechNet problem. "Microsoft successfully combats pirating of its commercial products, so it has means to address pirating without closing TechNet," Skidmore said. Ultimately, the Save TechNet crowd would like Microsoft to at least offer some middle ground between free tools and expensive ones rather than killing TechNet subscriptions altogether. Microsoft, however, has a lot on its to-do list at the moment. It seems doubtful that the company will change its mind, based on both its public comments as well as its responses to individual petitioners that have emailed the company directly. Skidmore noted that most replies have been of the form-letter variety. Recently, a handful of users received individualized responses requesting additional feedback after they'd mentioned that Action Pack, another subscription service available only to businesses in the Microsoft Partner Network that meet certain qualifications, was not a suitable substitute for their TechNet subscriptions. Many TechNet subscribers, Skidmore included, don't qualify for Action Pack in the first place. Skidmore and cohorts plan continue their efforts even if the response out of Redmond remains muted. "We are reasonable, thoughtful and intelligent individuals who committed substantial parts of our lives to Microsoft," Skidmore said. "We hope Microsoft listens to us and chooses an acceptable course instead of proving its critics right."
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