Last week, I had to laugh aloud at Microsoft’s announcement that Windows 10 would be offered as a free upgrade for users of both Windows 7 and Windows 8. This was a strange synchronicity, as I’d wondered allowed in an article earlier in the week, “If Microsoft can’t give Windows away for free on the laptop, how long will it be able to continue selling it on the desktop?” It was a rhetorical question, with no answer expected, but I got one anyway: Not too long.
From a PR standpoint, this announcement is paying off for Redmond, at least for the short term. This morning Google returned over four thousand news results specifically related to a search using the terms “microsoft windows 10 free upgrade,” with a slew of additional peripheral results. Outside the FOSS press, the articles generally heap praise on Microsoft for this move, which is seen as “bold” and “daring.” Forbes goes so far as to say “Windows 10 Gets It Right” as part of the headline for an article about the free upgrades.
From where I sit, this move is anything but bold and daring, and instead smacks of desperation and the grasping at straws. To be sure, I expect there’ll be many takers. After all, what Windows user wouldn’t want to upgrade to Redmond’s latest and greatest if doing so won’t involve breaking out the credit card. This would be especially true of those currently using Windows 8, who might even be willing to pay real money for a return of the beloved start button and to get rid of the-interface-formally-known-as-Metro.
Actually, the free upgrades seem to me to be a way for Microsoft to avoid the public relations nightmare the company has too often faced when releasing a new version of Windows, by giving the operating system a substantial user base out of the gate. Six or seven months after release, this might quell the usual slate of articles pointing out that Redmond’s latest and greatest isn’t being adopted by Windows users, like there was with Vista and even more so with Windows 8. And if Windows 10 works as expected, meaning it doesn’t absolutely suck eggs, and users are happy with the Windows 10 experience on their old iron, the company might be able to utilize that satisfaction to help the OEMs sell the operating system on new metal.
Ah, there’s the rub. For this to work, the new Windows must work “as expected.” What if it doesn’t? What if Redmond lays an egg and the new operating system is reminiscent of Windows ME or Vista? Will users be given the ability to roll back to their old OS as they could during the Vista brouhaha? And imagine the public relations nightmare if 10 turns out to be an utter fail. It could happen. This is Microsoft, after all.
There is nothing bold or daring about this move at all. Except for gamers, who have special needs, the day is long gone when Windows users line-up, eager to shell out a hundred bucks or so to upgrade their old machines to the latest and greatest that Redmond has to offer. These days, consumers expect to get all of their software free of charge. As MongoDB’s co-founder Dwight Merriman said when I interviewed him in October, “I don’t think consumers buy a lot of software anymore. They buy Windows when they buy a computer.”
And that’s it. These days, Windows users upgrade by buying a new computer, which is what they’ve been trained to do.
In other words, giving an operating system away to people who aren’t too darn likely to pay money for it lets Microsoft harvest a huge user base for its new offering without any real cost. Then, Redmond’s PR people get to work, leveraging this base to “prove” that Windows 10 is a smashing success.
It also lets Microsoft compete with Linux on price.