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January 26th, 2015

Redmond’s ‘Free’ Gambit

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.

StartFrom 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.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

5 comments to Redmond’s ‘Free’ Gambit

  • Mike

    Ironically, it appears that Linux users ARE willing to pay for a machine designed to respect your freedom from the ground up.

    The Librem 15 laptop recently met its funding goal. https://www.crowdsupply.com/purism/librem-laptop

    I backed this a while ago and am happy to see it succeed. While it may seem expensive if you only look at specs, it really does break new ground and hopefully sets a pecedent for future hardware.

  • Hammer

    It’s not a cost issue. I give a $10 monthly donation to my Linux distro of choice. I would have no problem paying MS for Windows, maybe $30, but unfortunately…

    1. They keep their reviled activation scheme
    2. We all know the US government will have their collective viril member firmly inserted in Windows 10’s behind.
    3. MS is known to have been extremely unethical in all ways and all senses since the beginning.
    4. They refuse to acknowledge all other file systems even exist, when supporting them would cost them barely anything, maybe nothing at all.

    So, no, thank you.

  • Billy Bob Torvalds

    Soooo…… it seems youre the unwilling stooge, Pogson and Lynch are feeding the trolls and SJVN is Chamberlain doing his appeasing thing.

    God, I love it when Roy gets on his high horse and splatters even our side with a good MS rant.

    Dont care about vapoware but I do know that a lot of my tablet and phone toting niece and nephews have been buying 199$ Chromebooks (you CAN make Skype work it) because they cant type their papers on a tablet. From what I see teens spend most of their times on their PS4 consoles or online by tablet or phone or console and what they consume (youtube, snapchat) is more important to them that on what device. No one of that generation is clamoring for a better OS. Its irrelevant to them.

  • Eli Cummings

    Two big mistakes.
    Windows 8 and Quicken.
    What they both have in common is that their desire to create software that spans all devices proved to be a disaster.

    Linux doesn’t have this issue. We have mobile Linux (Android)
    server distributions and desktop distributions as well as pieces for embedded systems.

    A common lineage adapted for different environments.

    Those who try to create a monolithic platform for all devices are doomed to fail. This is done by companies looking for cost savings and lock in.

    Apple doesn’t have this issue because as a company they don’t think that way. They charge a premium for a very specific experience and the experience on a phone is different than a laptop or desktop. It’s not about the same interface, it’s about the appropriate interface for the device.

    Design for mobile, desktop and the back room are different. The interface is just really another application. As an extreme example, who could possibly use Photoshop on a phone ?

  • Piers

    Up front I will say that I use an Android phone and have been using “Linux” (Arch Linux) for about 6 years.

    Thanks, a decent article, most of which I can agree with!

    The difference between Windows and Linux is that most people who use Linux actually understand the inner workings of the OS that they are using, whereas most Windows users do not have a cooking clue how the OS that they are using works!

    Pretty much everything that they do is by rote. Not that this is a signal for the world to end, but more that most users do not give a continental fig what it is that they are using (OS wise) as long as the task at hand gets accomplished! In other words, as long as there are sheep, there will be Windows users. Sorry if that sounds condescending, it is I know! Sure there are users out there who are clued up as regards Windows Operating Systems, but not that many! This obviously in comparison to the purported user base numbers!

    The comments posted here are pretty spot on, very perceptive indeed!

    Thanks, nice article, keep up the good work!

    Piers