Microsoft is at work on what what may be a free version of Windows 8.1, and is considering a free version of Windows Phone. Will free mainstream versions of Windows be a mainstay in Microsoft's future?
The Verge reports that that Microsoft is building what is called "Windows 8.1 with Bing," which would include a variety of Windows services on it, and which might be made available for free to Windows 7 users. Some reports have said that it will be offered for free to OEMs of low-end Windows devices, although others say that it won't be free, but instead very low cost.
The idea is that Microsoft will make no or little money on the Windows license, but instead will get revenue via Bing being the default search engine, and via the other Microsoft services on the device. That's in keeping with the reorganization of the company as a devices-and-services business, rather than one selling software only.
This isn't the first time we've heard such rumors. Back in December there was word that Microsoft was considering giving away Windows Phone and Windows RT for free, for this same reason.
That business model, of course, is the one that Android is built on. Google lets device makers use Android for free, and Google makes its money via Google search, Gmail, Google Maps, and other Google services. Microsoft is even jumping on the Android bandwagon, with Nokia building Windroid phones which are mashups of Android and Windows: Microsoft services such as Bing, OneDrive, and Outlook.com riding on top of Android.
Might Microsoft one day abandon for-pay Windows entirely, and simply give away all versions of Windows for free?
It's not likely. Even though Windows revenue is shrinking because PC sales have been dropping precipitously, and will continue to do so in the future, licensing Windows is still very big business for Microsoft, likely to bring in between $4.1 and $4.3 billion in the quarter ending in March. There's simply no way that ads from Bing and sales of Microsoft services can possibly come close to making up that revenue.
But don't be surprised if Microsoft continues to tinker with free and low-cost Windows at the margins of its businesses. Windows Phone could use a market boost, so giving that away for free might make sense. The same holds true for some Windows tablets, particularly at the price-sensitive low end of the market.
But a free version of mainstream Windows from now until forever? I don't see that happening.