In keeping with its previously-announced schedule, Microsoft has begun delivering the “gold,” or RTM, versions of Windows 8 to key customers, starting with subscribers to the MSDN and TechNet services. But you don’t have to be a paying subscriber to get Windows 8 right now: Anyone can download a free 90-day evaluation version of the software that’s ostensibly aimed at developers.

First, for the paying folk.

MSDN

Developers who target Microsoft’s platforms—Windows, Server, Office and so on—know that the software giant offers an annual subscription service called MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) that comes in various versions. The cheapest, called MSDN Operating Systems, costs $699 a year ($499 renewal), and of course includes Windows 8 (Core), Windows 8 Pro, and Windows 8 Enterprise. You get five licenses each for Windows 8 Core and Pro, and one Multiple Activation Key (MAK) for Windows 8 Enterprise. The MSDN web site notes that these software downloads and keys are identical to the retail versions of Windows 8, and they do not expire. That said, MSDN software is of course designed for only one purpose: So you can develop your own applications, services, and other solutions that run on Microsoft’s platforms. In other words, you can’t use this software in a production environment.

msdn
 

TechNet

IT pros who support Microsoft’s platforms are likewise familiar with the software giant’s TechNet subscription program, which comes in an inexpensive Standard edition ($199 per year; $149 renewal) as well are more expensive versions for businesses. And while I’ve recommended TechNet Standard in the past, many have noticed that Microsoft has recently begun cracking down on abuse of this subscription in particular, and I’ll just remind everyone that TechNet, like MSDN, isn’t designed as a cheap way for you to install Windows on all your kids’ computers. It’s for IT pros who are trying to learn more about Microsoft’s platforms so they can advance professionally.

Recent changes to TechNet Standard have significantly impacted the number of product keys one gets for popular products like Windows and Office. For Windows 8, you get just two product keys for Windows 8 Pro only. (Subscribers to higher-end TechNet subscriptions also get access to Windows 8 Enterprise. Those users get a single MAK-style key.)

technet

TechNet doesn’t note that its Windows 8 software is the retail version, but that’s always been the case in the past. As with MSDN, you cannot use this software in a production environment: It’s for testing purposes only. And you’re technically not supposed to use it if your subscription has lapsed.

90-day evaluation

If you’re not a paying subscriber to MSDN or TechNet, there’s some good news, sort of: You can download a 90-day evaluation version of Windows 8 Enterprise right now, and install and use it in any way you see fit.

eval

So, what’s not to like?

Well, lots, actually. You won’t be able to “upgrade” this evaluation version to a non-eval version at a later date. Because it’s Enterprise edition, you will see some features that you will not be able to access in the future when you install a mainstream, retail version of Windows 8 Core or Pro. And you must register when you install the software and sign in with a Microsoft account.

Not daunted? Hey, its 90 days of free Windows 8 experience, and you can always use this until the retail versions arrive in late October.

Have fun!