Microsoft Considers 'Free' Windows 8.1: Reports

Is Microsoft taking a page from Apple's playbook? The software giant is reportedly getting ready to offer free Windows upgrades, but with a catch.

Is a free version of Windows in Microsoft's future?

The idea gained traction this past weekend after reports that Microsoft is slashing the fees it charges OEMs for Windows and Windows Phone by up to 70 percent. Microsoft is rumored to go even lower for consumers looking to upgrade to Windows 8.1.

For the company, it is an opportunity not only to boost Windows 8.x adoption, but also to lure more users to its growing portfolio of cloud-enabled offerings.

In a Feb. 28 report, The Verge's Tom Warren wrote that Microsoft "is building 'Windows 8.1 with Bing,' a version that will bundle key Microsoft apps and services," according to sources. "While early versions of the software have leaked online, we understand that Windows 8.1 with Bing is an experimental project that aims to bring a low-cost version of Windows to consumers."

Currently, Net Application, a Web analytics company, ranks Windows 7 as the world's most popular desktop operating system, with 47.31 percent of the market (as of February 2014). Windows XP, which Microsoft will stop supporting next month, takes the number-two spot, with 29.53 percent. Windows 8.x (versions 8 and 8.1 collectively) is a distant third, with 10.68 percent of the market.

Microsoft's strategy to get XP users to ditch the aging OS hinges largely on urging them to upgrade to a new generation of Windows 8 tablets, convertibles and PCs. For the scores of Windows 7 users, the company is apparently making an appeal to their wallets.

"We're told that Microsoft is aiming to position Windows 8.1 with Bing as a free or low-cost upgrade for Windows 7 users," added Warren.

The leak suggests that Windows with Bing may materialize around the time Microsoft issues the Windows 8.1 spring update. Acknowledging that the update is on the way, Microsoft's Windows mobility chief Joe Belfiore said during Mobile World Congress late last month that the company will "continue to deliver innovation and progression with an update to Windows 8.1, coming this spring," according to a Feb. 23 blog post.

Microsoft is expected to show off more of the spring update during its upcoming Build developer's conference. Releasing Windows 8.1 with Bing shortly thereafter could provide a relatively smooth upgrade path for Windows 7 devices, which were generally built with keyboards and mice in mind, not touch-screens.

After its launch, Windows 8 was criticized for prioritizing touch and leaving fans of the traditional keyboard- and mouse-driven desktop out in the cold. The spring update should strike a better balance between both input methods. Belfiore stated that his company has "a number of targeted UI improvements that keep our highly satisfying touch experience intact, but that make the UI more familiar and more convenient for users with mouse/keyboard."

Despite making concessions to Windows traditionalists, Microsoft isn't slowing down on touch. "Don't worry, we still LOVE and BELIEVE IN touch … but you'll like how much more smooth and convenient these changes make mouse and keyboard use," he added.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...