Microsoft has announced that it will hand out free Windows 7 Ultimate copies to the initiation-only testers who received the very earliest builds of the OS last year.

"To show our appreciation, members of the invitation-only Windows 7 Technical Beta Program will be eligible for a free, final copy of Windows 7 Ultimate," said Microsoft spokesman Brandon LeBlanc in a post to a company blog. Just last week, LeBlanc had categorically said that no testers would receive a copy gratis.

Users who downloaded the public beta or release candidate, however, are not eligible for the thank you.

"If you were invited to join the Windows Technical Beta Program, you are eligible to receive a free final copy of Windows 7 Ultimate," added Anthony Mann, the Microsoft employee who manages the Windows forums on TechNet. "If you were not sent an invitation to participate, this offer does not apply to you."

Microsoft kicked off the Technical Beta Program last September, when it started taking applications on its Connect site, a clearinghouse for all its beta programmes.

Today, Microsoft declined to disclose the number of testers who will receive the free copy of Windows 7, citing company policy regarding Technical Betas.

Windows 7 is scheduled for public release on October 22, but subscribers to the for-pay TechNet and MSDN services will be able to download the final code, along with legitimate product activation keys, starting next Thursday.

See also:

Windows 7 review

Windows 7 news

Computerworld US