Is Windows 10 Free Now?

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Microsoft might be making Windows 10 free. Sort of. A bunch of confusing reports have come out this week saying that people with pirated copies of Windows will be able to upgrade to Windows 10 for free. (People with official copies of Windows 7 and 8 already get Windows 10 for free.)

The pirates will just be second-class citizens. According to Microsoft, these owners of “non-genuine PCs” will “not be supported by Microsoft or a trusted partner,” which raises as many questions as it answers.

Here’s what we don’t know. We don’t know if these ex-pirates will receive security updates, or for that matter feature updates. We don’t know if they’ll be stuck with a nag screen complaining about their non-viable Windows product every time they boot up. We don’t know how complete that pirated Windows 10 experience will be.

As Sebastian Anthony points out at Ars Technica, corporate licenses come into play here. Microsoft probably wants to tacitly let home users and people in China pirate Windows, while retaining the ability to deliver slaps on the wrist to Western companies running thousands of pirated copies.

Free The Operating Systems!
This raises the question of whether Windows should cost anything at all. To some extent Microsoft is trailing the industry here. If you look at the universe of consumer computing operating systems, across PCs, phones, and tablets, Microsoft is the only one that charges end-users money for the pure software product any more. Apple has been doing free OS upgrades since 2013, and since you can only run Mac OS on computers that already come with a Mac OS license (without doing crazy Hackintosh gyrations), piracy’s never been a major problem for them. Desktop Linux is typically free. The cost of a mobile OS, when there is one, is swallowed by the phone manufacturer and so consumers never see it.

We’re moving to a world where software is a service rather than a purchase. Everything’s a subscription. Look at Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud 2014. Yeah, yeah, I liked actually owning my software too, sigh. And it’s obvious what Microsoft is doing—by charging per month, it’s making sure that people actually upgrade rather than keep using Office 2008 or whatever because it’s “good enough” and they don’t want to buy new software. (At my home, we still use Adobe CS3.)

With the OS truly free, Microsoft could still get you on the hook for additional features, cloud storage, email accounts, app store apps, all that good stuff. Maybe they’ll sell you an Xbox or a Windows Phone too.

That last bit there is absolutely critical for Microsoft. While the company’s position in desktop and laptop PCs, especially in enterprise, is solid, it trails embarrassingly in other categories. Look at these Gartner numbers: PC sales have been flat for the past two years at about 316 million, while more than 2 billion tablets and mobile phones will fall into people’s hands this year. Microsoft has a single-digit share of that latter market.

As I’ve said a bunch of times, Microsoft has had the potential to leverage Windows and Xbox integration to improve its position in mobile for several years now. It said it would do that with Windows 7, using something called Device Stage, and then lost the plot. With Windows Phone 7, the company briefly showed some exciting Xbox game integration and then drifted off. The plot remained lost with Windows 8 and Xbox One.

Microsoft has talked a bit about how Windows 10 will stream Xbox games and share universal applications with Windows Phones. A free Windows 10 with tight, competent, integrated phone, tablet, and Xbox experiences would help jump-start Microsoft where it really needs help.

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