Microsoft

Microsoft should get used to giving Windows away for free

The mobile revolution has changed the way businesses and users think about operating system upgrades. Free is now the expected norm. Will this work for Microsoft?

 

Free Windows
 

Microsoft is hard at work on Windows 9, while pleading with users to make a switch off of the archaic Windows XP. One way Microsoft can reduce friction and improve the adoption rate of new versions of Windows is to simply make the operating system free.

With less than two months left until Microsoft officially ends support for Windows XP, the operating system still has nearly a third of the desktop market, according to NetMarketShare. A recent Tech Pro Research study found that 37% of Windows XP users plan to stick with the OS even after support expires, and one in five of those stubborn users cited cost as the primary factor.

What if cost wasn't a factor?

The most common way for businesses and individuals to get a new operating system is by purchasing a new PC. There are many updates and patches developed for the OS over the years, but when the next major version is developed, you traditionally either buy a new PC or pay for the new version of the operating system.

Two things have ruined that simple dynamic, and both of them are Apple's fault. First, Apple started producing major updates to Mac OS X on an annual cycle, and it made the upgrade to the new version available for only $30. Meanwhile, Microsoft was still trying to convince users to pay $100 or more — offering a confusing array of options and licensing models — to do essentially the same thing with Windows. Predictably, Apple has a much higher success rate of moving users to the most current version of the OS, while Microsoft is still begging people to abandon Windows XP.

The second factor is the mobile revolution. Again, most people get a new mobile OS by acquiring a new mobile device. But, when a new version of the mobile OS is made available, it's simply pushed out as an available update for all applicable devices. Because of interference from device manufacturers and wireless providers, it can still take months — or even years — for some Android devices to get the "latest" OS, but when Apple launches a new version of iOS, it's very quickly embraced. As of January 2014, four out of five eligible devices have made the switch to iOS 7 in a matter of just a few months.

Then, Apple dropped a bomb with the latest release of its desktop OS. It announced that Mac OS X 10.9— a.k.a. "Mavericks" — would also be available for free.

Microsoft offered a limited-time bargain for Windows 8 that users should have taken advantage of, but even that was still $40. Windows 8.1 was offered for free, but that's an incremental update akin to Windows 8 Service Pack 1. The real test will be Windows 9.

Cost is not the only factor. In fact, in the aforementioned Tech Pro Research report, users sticking with Windows XP noted other important factors, including "It works, so there's no need to change" and "Crucial software depends on Windows XP." Even if Microsoft gave away Windows 7 or Windows 8, it seems that roughly 80% of users surveyed would continue to use Windows XP.

Moving forward, though, the combination of ubiquitous mobile devices receiving free OS upgrades and Apple setting the precedent of free OS upgrades at the desktop level mean that Microsoft will essentially be obligated to follow that lead and make Windows 9 and subsequent operating systems free.

Granted, that means Microsoft would be giving up a major source of revenue. But giving the OS away for free will help Microsoft maintain its dominance of desktop OS market share and boost the Microsoft brand. Microsoft will just have to capitalize on that OS dominance to make up the difference in revenue from other products and services. 

Do you think free software will help Microsoft maintain its dominance on the desktop? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

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About

Tony Bradley is a principal analyst with Bradley Strategy Group. He is a respected authority on technology, and information security. He writes regularly for Forbes, and PCWorld, and contributes to a wide variety of online and print media outlets. He...

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