Microsoft plans on axing its TechNet subscription service, which provides a variety of software—ostensibly for development and evaluation purposes—and technical information to IT specialists around the world. The decision doesn't mean operations and testing specialists won't be able to get fresh copies of Sharepoint or SQL Server or Systems Center when the old ones can't recover from another trip through the wringer. It does mean it won't be as easy to get free copies of Word or PowerPoint or Lync to put on their personal machines quickly enough after a major update to let them swagger through corporate hallways filled with the less-privileged. Originally launched in 1998 as a way for Microsoft to distribute free (or nearly free) production-quality software to members of corporate IT staffs—the better to give those staffs a way to test and troubleshoot new software on a timely basis—TechNet became an easy way to access, say, the next version of SQL Server before deciding to deploy it to an entire organization. TechNet made good business sense for Microsoft, as it allowed the company to push upcoming software to IT people, who could then give a thumbs up (or thumbs down) to senior IT managers with the power to actually sign a contract. IT people seemed to like TechNet, too, as it gave them virtually unlimited access to almost all of Microsoft’s non-entertainment software for less than the retail cost of a single suite. TechNet licenses currently sell for between $199 and $599, which includes evaluation licenses for 535 Microsoft applications or utilities, plus access to digital training programs, online chat support, DVDs of some software in addition to downloads, and discounts on premium professional support calls. Subscribers could install evaluation software on any device they wanted, including their home machines, as long as they didn't use the software in a commercial environment for commercial purposes other than evaluation—no copying Microsoft administration or productivity software to every machine in your department, in other words. By the mid-2000s, however, a service that was a great way to reach IT people with new software had transformed into a leading source of legitimate software keys distributed by data pirates. The off-license redistribution became so heavy that it prompted Microsoft into periodic license re-evaluations, warnings about pirated software, and more specific restrictions and responsibilities regarding activation and protection of product keys. But Microsoft insists that piracy wasn’t the proximate cause for the demise of TechNet’s eternal-evaluation subscriptions: "Although the TechNet Subscriptions service has experienced piracy and license misuse in the past, there was no single factor in the decision to retire the TechNet Subscriptions service," the company wrote in its announcement. Instead, the change was made to accommodate "a usage shift from paid to free evaluation experiences and resources.” Microsoft will replace the evaluation system with TechNet Evaluation Center, which offers evaluation versions of software with hard time limits ranging from 30 days to 180 days. Online training will come free from Microsoft Virtual Academy; free online forums for mutual support will still be available on the TechNet Forums. Microsoft will continue to honor existing TechNet subscriptions (including software downloads) until Sept. 30, 2014. It will continue selling new subscriptions until Aug. 31, 2013. Once a subscription has expired, subscribers lose access to the TechNet Subscriptions portal and will have to use the new, free outlets sites for TechNet information.   Image: Microsoft