Should Windows Upgrades Be Free?

Later today, Microsoft is holding an event in San Francisco to unveil the new Windows operating system and most likely launch some sort of technical preview. We don’t yet know if it will be called Windows 9, Windows Threshold, or simply Windows, but no matter what the official name of the new OS, the price for upgrading to it should be free.

You can thank mobile devices in general, and Apple specifically, for the shift in OS pricing. When the latest greatest version of iOS or Android is released, the issue of cost never comes up. It’s simply expected that the upgrade will be free.

The culture of free upgrades on mobile devices was driven in large part by Apple, and Apple is also the company that extended that model to its desktop OS. Apple was already providing new versions of Mac OS X at a fraction of what Microsoft was charging customers to upgrade to the latest Windows release, but last year, when Apple launched Mac OS X “Mavericks,” it also made the upgrade available for free. I expect the same with the upcoming release of OS X “Yosemite” this fall.

That’s a tough act to follow. Mac OS X is certainly not a threat to Windows, but it has gained much more mainstream relevance and has been chipping away at Microsoft’s share of the desktop OS market. Microsoft can’t really just ignore the fact that Apple is offering Mac OS X upgrades for free and then continue charging hundreds of dollars for the latest version of Windows.

Multiple Windows 9 reports have suggested that Microsoft is considering releasing the upcoming platform as a free download to certain existing Windows users. The Windows 9 upgrade will be available free of charge to all existing Windows 8 users once it’s released. Apparently, users will be able to easily install the Windows 9 update after downloading it from Microsoft, which is how Apple’s OS X updates have been rolled out to Macs for a few years now. For what it’s worth, some of the recent Windows 9 leaks did say that Microsoft already has a tool in place that will allow users to easily perform software updates.

It’s not clear whether other Windows users who are on older versions of the OS will get any other special offers, and actual prices for Windows 9 have yet to be revealed. Microsoft is reportedly interested in moving many people from the older, and no longer supported, Windows XP and offering Windows 9 as a free download might be a great incentive for some.

Recent leaks, including many online videos, have revealed some of the major features coming to Windows 9, including the return of the Start menu, the Cortana voice-based search assistant that’s currently available only on Windows Phone, the Notification Center, support for multiple desktops, and several other user interface enhancements.

Providing a free OS upgrade takes the wind out of the sails of most complaints. One of the biggest protests users have about upgrading isn’t the operating system itself, it’s the idea that they’re being “forced” to upgrade just to line Microsoft’s pockets with cash. There will always be challenging issues with any new operating system — you can’t please everyone — but the backlash would be greatly reduced if no money exchanged hands. Customers would give Microsoft a lot more leeway and be much more forgiving if the latest, greatest version is free.

Operating system adoption is also subject to inertia. When a new version of an operating system is launched, the more people download and install it and the greater market share it wins, the more likely it is that more people will continue to download and install it. If the OS upgrade is available for free, it’s much more likely that demand will be higher, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that drives adoption.

Microsoft doesn’t need to charge for Windows upgrades. Technology changes over time. Hardware crashes and dies. There will be customers who will cling to their 10-year old hardware, but many will still buy new PCs to replace broken hardware, get a faster processor, or take advantage of the latest USB or Wi-Fi components. Microsoft could provide free upgrades to the latest version of Windows for existing owners of licensed copies of Windows but still continue to charge OEM manufacturers for installing the OS in new PCs (Microsoft does give the Windows OS away for free for devices with screens smaller than nine inches).

The latest versions of iOS and Android are free for those with existing iOS and Android devices, but they aren’t available for all existing iOS or Android devices. iOS 8 is only compatible with the iPhone 4s and newer, the iPod Touch 5th generation and newer, and the iPad 2 and newer. Anyone with an older iOS device must now replace their hardware in order to get the benefits of the latest OS.

Microsoft is a corporation that exists to bring in revenue and provide value to its shareholders. It’s not operating as a non-profit. As such, Microsoft has a vested interest in ensuring that as many businesses and consumers around the world continue to depend on the Windows OS so that it can sell its other products and services — and it could help that cause by providing Windows upgrades for free.

Do you agree? Share your thoughts with me….

 

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