R.I.P. TechNet — the sad end of an MS institution

Woody Leonhard

For years technology consultants, researchers, and journalists have relied on Microsoft’s inexpensive TechNet subscription service to test and evaluate the company’s offerings.

Last week, Microsoft announced it would end TechNet subscriptions, effective Aug. 31. Here’s why that decision is — to put it kindly — lamentable.

I wrote about TechNet subscriptions in my July 1, 2010, Woody’s Windows column, “The ultimate software deal has strings attached” (paid content). Microsoft had just lowered the price for the TechNet Standard package — from U.S. $349 to $199 for the first year ($149 for subsequent years), making the service even more affordable for the legions of technologists with small budgets. (Medium-to-large businesses pay heavily for Microsoft Developer Network [MSDN] subscriptions. MSDN starts at $699 for the first year; add Office and Visual Studio, and it jumps to $6,119. That’s a nosebleed jump from TechNet’s $199.)

Those who qualify for TechNet (more on that below) get access to nearly all of Microsoft’s software (Office for the Mac being a notable exception), with a limited number of license keys for each application.

Microsoft’s recent announcement stated that TechNet users could buy or renew a one-year subscription through Aug. 31. Not surprisingly, the announcement was immediately condemned by TechNet users, and it raised numerous unanswered questions — such as what happens to the license keys currently in use.

A system that might actually encourage piracy

Microsoft hasn’t specifically stated that software piracy is the root cause of TechNet’s demise. But there’s no doubt that a significant number of TechNet subscribers have abused the service. In truth, the program has been rife with petty-level pirating for all of its nearly 20 years.

Back in the early days, packs of TechNet CDs arrived in the mail. It was like manna from the mother ship. And those CDs got passed around.

Today, TechNet’s many offerings are simply downloaded as easily copied and shared ISO files. For the most part, the downloads are managed through a sort of honor system. That makes it easy for some subscribers to game the system — i.e., download genuine copies of Microsoft software along with perfectly legitimate keys and then either give the software to family and friends or sell it at the local flea market. Undoubtedly, a few unscrupulous PC resellers sold systems with free TechNet software keys — and charged their customers “discounted” application fees.

There’s no excuse for blatant abuses of TechNet, but its own rules have caused confusion about licensing requirements. For example, the current TechNet subscription page simply states, “Software is licensed for evaluation purposes only, not for use in production environments.”

In my 2010 Top Story, I interpreted that agreement as: “It’s completely legitimate — so long as you’re not using the software for work but rather evaluating its features, testing its performance, or otherwise assessing its suitability for yourself or others.”

But the TechNet death-notification FAQ states, “The software provided with TechNet Subscriptions is designed for hands-on IT Professionals to evaluate Microsoft software and plan deployments.”

I’ve no idea how, when, or even whether the official Terms of Service changed. But though there’s no question that I qualify under the first set of rules, it’s highly unlikely that I qualify under the second. (Do I need to plan deployments?)

Fifteen years ago, Microsoft was happy to sell TechNet subscriptions to serious developers, consultants, and even tech writers. We carried the good word to Microsoft’s customers, and we were ready to help those that needed assistance. Times have certainly changed.

The nature of software licenses changed, too

About a year ago, Microsoft changed another part of its TechNet policies. Previously, the keys you received for downloaded apps were perpetual — you could use them forever, as long as you followed the basic testing-and-evaluation tenets. Currently, keys are valid only as long as you have a TechNet subscription. If you let your subscription lapse, the licenses immediately become invalid.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has never issued a clarification (at least none that I can find) as to whether the new rules are retroactive — and/or how Microsoft differentiates older perpetual keys from new rental keys.

ZDNet’s Ed Bott described the change in a July 2, 2012, story. His take: “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.”

With TechNet’s demise, do licenses live or die?

The future of application licenses is the most pressing — and complicated — question for all TechNet subscribers. For example, if you installed a TechNet version of Windows 7 in early 2012, you might be able to use that copy forever (within the limitations imposed at that time). But what if you installed a second copy of Win7 in early 2013, using the same key that you used in 2012? (Many TechNet keys can be used multiple times.) Will Microsoft treat the second installation differently?

This is all confusing enough, but then there are these rather ominous statements in the latest TechNet Subscription Agreement (page). It states, in part, “The subscription is provided through a private computer network that Microsoft operates for the benefit of itself and its customers. … The technology or other means Microsoft uses may hinder or otherwise affect your use of the subscription. … Microsoft may deactivate or otherwise limit your keys when your subscription ends. Deactivated keys will not be able to activate software.”

In other words, TechNet keys are presumably separate from the usual activation network. At some point, that private TechNet network could simply cease to exist. (At this point, even Microsoft might not know what it will eventually do with currently validated TechNet keys, as TechNet subscriptions come to their final end.)

Reasons MS should reconsider the end of TechNet

Fellow Windows Secrets contributor Susan Bradley has worked extensively with admins, consultants, and developers. So I asked her to list the reasons IT professionals are lamenting TechNet’s end. Here are her top gripes:

  • Loss of long-term testing platforms: Consultants and developers need complete evaluation platforms (consisting of servers and multiple workstations) to do their primary job — supporting Microsoft’s customers. With TechNet gone, there are fewer options. MSDN (site) starts at $700 for the first year and Azure (more info) is too complex. Time-bombed evals (future evaluation software will be free for 30–180 days) will not provide a long-term, stable test platform.
  • Loss of phone-support incidents: When you really need to get Microsoft’s attention in a hurry, the only real option is through the call-support process. Depending on your TechNet subscription level, you currently get at least two free phone-support “incidents.” It’s not clear whether there will be any free support after Aug. 31.
  • Loss of the guaranteed Microsoft engineer SLA response to a TechNet subscriber question in a monitored forum: Again, for small-business technologists, it’s a question of inexpensive access. Without TechNet, the only other option — MSDN — is breathtakingly expensive.

Susan goes on to say, “There’s also the bigger picture of whether Microsoft wants to continue supporting small-business IT pros and consultants.” TechNet was a critical resource for the SMB crowd.

She continues, “I understand that Microsoft has a piracy problem with TechNet. But perhaps it should have stopped throwing out software keys like candy and ensured that TechNet subscribers are, in fact, technology professionals. Currently, anybody who comes up with $199 gets in. Microsoft never verifies your technology-professional standing.

“Microsoft is pushing Office 365 subscriptions to small businesses. Last May, it announced that Office 365 would be added to TechNet. Now that will be taken away from the professionals who will install and support Office 365.

“Many SMB consultants now believe that Microsoft is focusing on direct sales and support (primarily via Office 365), effectively cutting consultants out of the support business. There’s a ton of angst among tech pros over this and other issues.”

What you can (and should) do

More information on TechNet’s retirement (as MS puts it) may be found on its Subscription page. Given the Aug. 31 deadline, you don’t have much time to sign up for or renew a one-year TechNet subscription.

Microsoft states that licenses aren’t valid unless you renew your TechNet subscription. But when Microsoft cuts off subscription renewals, it’s hard to imagine that it will immediately shut off already-accessed keys. I can just see an attorney having a field day with that one. But for now, we simply don’t know what MS will do.

Even with its demise, please respect the TechNet system. Don’t sell keys to third parties or give them away to everyone in your poker club. Who knows? There’s always a chance that Microsoft will bring back TechNet — in a form that’s beneficial both to the company and to its acolytes.

There’s an effort afoot to convince Microsoft that it needs the accessibility of the current TechNet — or at least needs to make MSDN much more affordable. If you’d like to participate in the effort, head over to the change.org site and sign Cody Skidmore’s petition.

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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.