A reappraisal of Windows 8 and 8.1 licensing

With the release of Windows 8 around this time last year, I thought that the full retail version that some of us got for fresh installations on PC’s, real or virtual, had become a thing of the past. In fact, it did seem that every respecting technology news website and magazine was saying just that. The release that you would buy from Microsft or from mainstream computer stores was labelled as an upgrade. That made it look as if you needed the OEM or System Builder edition for those PC’s that needed a new Windows installation and that the licence that you bought was then attached to the machine from when it got installed on there.

As is usual with Microsoft, the situation is less clear cut than that. For instance, there was some back-pedalling to allow OEM editions of Windows to be licensed for personal use on real or virtual PC’s. With Windows & and its predecessors, it even was possible to be able to install afresh on a PC without Windows by first installing on inactivated copy on there and then upgrading that as if it was a previous version of Windows. Of course, an actual licence was of the previous version of Windows was needed for full compliance if not the actual installation. At times, Microsoft muddies waters so as to keep its support costs down.

Even with Microsoft’s track record in mind, it still did surprise me when I noticed that Amazon was selling what appeared to be full versions of both Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro. Having set up a 64-bit VirtualBox virtual machine for Windows 8.1, I got to discovering the same for software purchased from the Microsoft web site. However, unlike the DVD versions, you do need an active Windows installation if you fancy a same day installation of the downloaded software. For those without Windows on a machine, this can be as simple as downloading either the 32-bit or the 64-bit 90 day evaluation editions of Windows 8.1 Enterprise and using that as a springboard for the next steps. This not only be an actual in-situ installation but there options to create an ISO or USB image of the installation disk for later installation.

In my case, I created a 64-bit ISO image and used that to reboot the virtual machine that had Windows 8.1 Enterprise on there before continuing with the installation. By all appearances, there seemed to be little need for a pre-existing Windows instance for it to work so it looks as if upgrades have fallen by the wayside and only full editions of Windows 8.1 are available now. The OEM version saves money so long as you are happy to stick with just one machine and most users probably will do that. As for the portability of the full retail version, that is not something that I have tested and I am unsure that I will go beyond what I have done already.

My main machine has seen a change of motherboard, CPU and memory so it could have de-activated a pre-existing Windows licence. However, I run Linux as my main operating system and, apart possibly from one surmountable hiccup, this proves surprisingly resilient in the face of such major system changes. For running Windows, I turn to virtual machines and there were no messages about licence activation during the changeover either. Microsoft is anything but confiding when it comes to declaring what hardware changes inactivate a licence. Changing a virtual machine from VirtualBox to VMware or vice versa definitely so does it so I tend to avoid doing that. One item that is fundamental to either a virtual or a real PC is the mainboard and I have seen suggestions that this is the critical component for Windows licence activation and it would make sense if that was the case.

However, this rule is not hard and fast either since there appears to be room for manoeuvre should your PC break. It might be worth calling Microsoft after a motherboard replacement to see if they can help you and I have seen that it is. All in all, Microsoft often makes what appear to be simple rules only to override them when faced with what happens in the real world. Is that why they can be unclear about some matters at times? Do they still hanker after how they want things to be even when they are impossible to keep like that?

Office 2007 on test…

With its imminent launch and having had a quick at one of its beta releases, I decided to give Office 2007 a longer look after it reached its final guise. This is courtesy of the demonstration version that can be downloaded from Microsoft’s website; I snagged Office Standard which contains Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Very generously, the trial version that I am using gives me until the end of March to come to my final decision.

And what are my impressions? Outlook, the application from the suite that I most use, has changed dramatically since Outlook 2002, the version that I have been using. Unless you open up an email in full screen mode, the ribbon interface so prevalent in other members of the Office family doesn’t make much of an appearance here. The three-paned interface taken forward from Outlook 2003 is easy to get around. I especially like the ability to collapse/expand a list of emails from a particular sender: it really cuts down on clutter. The ZoneAlarm anti-spam plug-in on my system was accepted without any complaint as were all of my PST files. One thing that needed redoing was the IMAP connection to my FastMail webmail account but that was driven more by Outlook warning messages than by necessity from a user experience point of view. I have still to get my Hotmail account going but I lost that connection when still using Outlook 2002 and after I upgraded to IE7.

What do I make of the ribbon interface? As I have said above, Outlook is not pervaded by the new interface paradigm until you open up an email. Nevertheless, I have had a short encounter with Word 2007 and am convinced that the new interface works well. It didn’t take me long to find my way around at all. In fact, I think that they have made a great job of the new main menu triggered by the Office Button (as Microsoft call it) and got all sorts of things in there; the list includes Word options, expanded options for saving files (including the new docx file format, of course, but the doc format has not been discarded either) and a publishing capability that includes popular blogs (WordPress.com, for instance) together with document management servers. Additionally, the new zoom control on the bottom right-hand corner is much nicer than the old drop down menu. As regards the “ribbon”, this is an extension of the tabbed interfaces seen in other applications like Adobe HomeSite and Adobe Dreamweaver, the difference being that the tabs are only place where any function is found because there is no menu back up. There is an Add-ins tab that captures plug-ins to things like Adobe Distiller for PDF creation. Macromedia in its pre-Adobe days offered FlashPaper for doing the same thing and this seems to function without a hitch in Word 2007. Right-clicking on any word in your document not only gives you suggested corrections to misspellings but also synonyms (no more Shift-F7 for the thesaurus, though it is still there is you need it) and enhanced on-the-spot formatting options. A miniature formatting menu even appears beside the expected context menu; I must admit that I found that a little annoying at the beginning but I suppose that I will learn to get used to it.

My use of Outlook and Word will continue, the latter’s blogging feature is very nice, but I haven’t had reason to look at Excel or PowerPoint in detail thus far. From what I have seen, the ribbon interface pervades in those applications too. Even so, my impressions the latest Office are very favourable. The interface overhaul may be radical but it does work. Their changing the file formats is a more subtle change but it does mean that users of previous Office versions will need the converter tool in order for document sharing to continue. Office 97 was the last time when we had to cope with that and it didn’t seem to cause the world to grind to a halt.

Will I upgrade? I have to say that it is very likely given what is available in Office Home and Student edition. That version misses out on having Outlook but the prices mean that even buying Outlook standalone to compliment what it offers remains a sensible financial option. Taking a look at the retail prices on dabs.com confirms the point:

Office Home and Student Edition: £94.61

Office Standard Edition: £285.50

Office Standard Edition Upgrade: £175.96

Outlook 2007: £77.98

Having full version software for the price of an upgrade sounds good to me and it is likely to be the route that I take, if I replace the Office XP Standard Edition installation that has been my mainstay over the last few years. Having been on a Windows 95 > Windows 98 > Windows 98 SE > Windows ME upgrade treadmill and endured the hell raised when reinstallation becomes unavoidable, the full product approach to getting the latest software appeals to me over the upgrade pathway. In fact, I bought Windows XP Professional as the full product in order to start afresh after moving on from Windows 9x.