One of the biggest struggles that the software industry faces is that of the not-so-underground pirate market. Whilst this used to be confined to certain countries and small close social groups over the years more and more we’re seeing piracy becoming more mainstream. Gone are the days when only the technically elite had the means and motivation to copy untold millions of dollars worth of software and we now herald the days when anyone with a quick google search and a hunger for something free can get what they want.
So what can you do in a market where people will have your product despite having not paid for it? Simple, convert those people (who would probably not buy your software anyway even if it was “unpiratable”) into your unruly mass of beta testers. How would you go about something like this? Well Microsoft certainly has a novel way of recuriting beta testers:
The Release Candidate is now available to MSDN and TechNet subscribers, and will go on unlimited, general release on 5 May.
The software will not expire until 1 June 2010, giving testers more than a year’s free access to Windows 7.
“It’s available to as many people who see fit to use it, although we wouldn’t recommend it to just your average user,” John Curran, director of the Windows Client Group told PC Pro. “We’d very strongly encourage anyone on the beta to move to the Release Candidate.”
Being a beta tester of Windows 7 myself I can attest to the high build quality of the current release, and if the previous builds are any indication the RC will be a very polished operating system. This is the kind of thing that could lure those devilish pirate users away from their current installs of Windows, which suffer from not being able to patch or download Microsoft value-add software, onto a new system where they’re basically a fully paid Microsoft customer. Not to mention some of the other perks from other companies offering things like free antivirus, yet again another perk from something that’s completely free.
Another bit of evidence that seems to lend credence to this theory is the fact that even months after Microsoft pulled the keys from their Windows 7 registration site the torrent for the latest build still remains up for all to download and play with. Whilst you may take the risk of downloading a pre-loaded trojan Microsoft was kind enough to provide a SHA-1 hash of the builds for everyone allowing you to verify that your downloaded file is genuine. It also takes a bit of load away from Microsoft, who should have considered releasing an official torrent in the first place.
So what do they have to lose by switching across? For the most part they might have some issues with their legacy bits of software and possibly hardware incompatibility issues. When I first installed Windows 7 most of my hardware had drivers already available for Windows 7 and if they failed the Vista drivers worked (albeit with a few tweaks). Since they are now technically customers of Microsoft they can ask for support for their problems, something which before would probably involve them trolling through endless web searches hoping someone else had their issue.
Doing this kind of long beta is however a double-edged sword. As many software developers have found when you provide your software ahead of time to the general public this always gives the hackers and crackers a head start on your copy protection mechanisms¹. By the time Windows 7 hits the stores the activation scheme will be well known and Microsoft will be a step behind in the ever raging arms race with the pirates. It also takes away from a lot of the hype about the product, since everyone who would be buying this product would probably already have it installed.
For Microsoft this is making the best of a bad situation, and overall it’s a good move for them. Whilst the rate wouldn’t be high I’m sure there were some people running a previous (pirated) version of Windows that will consider forking over some cash for the new version once they’ve played with it for a year. Additionally the corporate sector will have a long time to prepare for Windows 7, easing the transition pain some what.
I know I’ll be running it for the coming year
¹ Whilst I can’t find a good link on one of the techniques I used to hear of I’ll attempt to explain it here. Many game development companies would provide a demo or trial version a few weeks before official release in order to generate a bit of hype. Usually this would involve a lot of the production code and most of the time this wouldn’t contain the DRM or genuine copy verification mechanisms in it. Many would be hackers would then use the files in the demo to create cracks for the retail versions, sometimes by just simply copying the main executable from the trial over the top of the retail version.