Is this the era of free operating systems?

Is this the era of free operating systems?

Summary: Microsoft's "devices and services" mantra means that the company, eventually, has to make Windows free.

TOPICS: Microsoft, Windows
Windows 8 Pro box shot with price tag
Windows 8.1. You have to pay for it.

2013 was a challenging year for Microsoft. It started with Windows 8 just coming into the market, the company's obvious hope being that it would set the world alight.

What happened instead was an aggregation of challenges where the company continued to feel pressure on its Windows and Office franchises from the ascendency of a "post-PC" approach to personal computing.

Whilst the company isn't blind to this, my thoughts as we go into 2014 for the company are around their "devices and services" mantra and whether this is a tacit admission that operating systems that users actually pay for are now a thing of the past. This is obviously a big deal for a company that sells operating systems.


With the recent release of iOS 7, it only took Apple about six weeks to get the operating system on 74 percent of compatible devices. What Apple has managed to do here with iOS is to create standardisation whereas Google with Android has created fragmentation. Compare the iOS 7 figure to this chart from Google and it's easy to see what a mishmash of operating systems variants Android is.

Android OS versions
Android operating systems variants out in the wild.

Whilst fragmentation creates technical problems for developers, the bigger problem for a platform owner is that it makes marketing your services significantly harder.

As we know, operating systems these days aren't simple systems for driving common local and network devices. What constitutes an operating system "platform" like iOS, Android, or Windows includes extra bits and pieces like web browsers, media players and the like. Modern operating systems are massive undertakings designed around delivering a very rich set of capabilities to the users.

Having everyone on the same set of platform bits is like having your entire customer base in one location. (I tend to think of this like a giant stadium, for what its worth.) Marketing at a huge bunch of people when they're all in one place is easy. The opposite is that when you're not standardising, you're spreading your customer base out thinly. You can't necessarily pitch the same message or sell the same products to the entire base.

Apple seemed to understand this, and their objectives to build out all the infrastructure and capability to prevent fragmentation in the iOS platform has more to do with being able to drive iTunes and App Store content than anything else.


Technically, if you have a computer system that's always connected to the internet, getting it to automatically update itself is trivial. What's odd is that this is something we've been able to do for nearly two decades and yet remains something relatively nouveau. It's not unusual to find older systems out in the wild that are patchily updates (no pun).

Even Google makes a fuss about how Chromebooks can auto-update themselves. This should not be news -- all computer systems obviously should.

Historically Microsoft has not forced updates on users, mainly because enterprise users need a level of control over what gets installed and when. There's a balance here though as to whether home users need that level of control. They almost certainly do need to prevent automatic updates to stop apps from breaking, but then they almost certainly should not be able to opt-out of security updates that prevent loss and embarrassment.

Here then is one of the impedance mismatches of the new post-PC era that Microsoft has to deal with. Apple seems to understand that with iOS there is significant platform to them as the platform owner in having everyone on the same operating system. This is aped in OS X Mavericks, which is now free.

The fact that no one pays for Android is likely a historical accident due to its open source roots, but this does mean that out of all of the major operating systems -- and I'm counting iOS, OS X, Android, and Linux here -- only Windows is something that users have to pay for in a direct fashion.


Microsoft's vision of how PCs work in the post-PC era is based on Windows 8. In order for people to experience that vision, they have to have it on their devices. Currently, the only way for the user to do that is something extremely intentional -- they have to go out of their way to buy new hardware or upgrade it. Those twin barriers of "payment" and "hassle" acts as an enormous drag against delivery of Microsoft's complex vision.

In the iOS/OS X model, and even the Android model depending on how far up the versions you are, that doesn't happen. Apple's vision of how their devices work in the post-PC era simply ends up being everywhere without intervention.

Of course, the problem here is that Microsoft is dependent on actually selling Windows. Or rather, that was the old way of doing things. As a "devices and services" business, as per Apple and Google, Windows becomes a platform on which Microsoft services run, ergo they cannot charge for it unless they want to limit the scope of those services.

So does that mean over the next couple of years as Microsoft starts to out the meat onto the so-called Threshold release will we see them stop charging for Windows? I rather think that we might.

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Topics: Microsoft, Windows

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  • Even free is too expensive

    OS need to be OSS ...
    • Yes, but Microsoft doesn't like OSS

      Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that Linux and open-source software is "a cancer".

      That attitude was his downfall.

      This article says that Android's no-cost open-source roots are likely a historical accident. No. Off-the-shelf open-source software was the secret weapon that Google used to fast-track Android to market.

      For that matter, Apple's iOS is based on open-source BSD Unix, with an open-source WebKit browser. All platforms were able to whack Microsoft where it hurt, using open-source software.

      Meanwhile, Microsoft (which charges for its OSes) tried to build a phone system from scratch, and it came out buggy and four years too late.
      • Calling OSX Open Source is a bit rich

        Apple has in the past charge for upgrades of their OS software of OSX and they may again. You are not allowed to modify or distribute OSX.

        As far as WebKit, all the major browser makers are moving away from WebKit.

        No digs against OSS, just disagree with your comparisons. Since Vista, Windows has been stable and each iteration of W7 and W8, now W8.1, its has become lighter and more agile w/o the need for OSS.
        Rann Xeroxx
      • MS and OSS

        Considering how involved Microsoft is with the Linux Kernel development, this statement comes as rather a surprise to me.
    • OS needs to be OSS


      if the OS is not Open Source there is no way it can be validated. And recent developments clearly show that validation is required for commercial systems.

      the second element of security can then be applied by using a product such as APPARMOR to CONTROL what an app program is allowed to do. For example you might wish to prevent your browser from accessing the /correspondence subdirectory of yuour /documentsd directory.

      the first element of security is restricting sotware updates to authorized programming only. you must have a secure OS to do this. and as has recently come to light you ain't getting this from a commercial service.
      • The Snowden leaks...

        ...has revealed that the NSA has no problem joining communities to "contribute" to OSS. Yes, anyone can peer review any of the code, but typically it very hard to actually read lines of code and find a security issue.

        Same thing can happen at Apple or MS and a covert government agent can gain employment at either company and interject code not beneficial to the end users or the company can do it.

        Bottom line, if you eat a food a company makes, you have to trust the company or not eat the food. Google, Apple, MS, etc, trust them or don't.
        Rann Xeroxx
        • rann xeroxx .. a few counterpoints

          The food analogy isn't ideal. Why? I don't trust KFC .. but i sure as darn-it eat their chicken products .. and the same goes for The Golden Arches. A more apropos idea (albeit a pipe dream for most) would be to suggest: if you don't like any of the products / services on offer, go make your own OS.


          Quote: "Same thing can happen at Apple or MS and a covert government agent can gain employment at either company and interject code not beneficial to the end users or the company can do it. "

          ... your words almost imply that there's no co-operation (at the very least), on behalf of Apple and MS in providing back-doors - and more, or (at the other extreme - and most likely) cart-Blanche access given to the NSA. I'd wager the keys - and just shy of the ownership papers, were handed over to the NSA quite some time ago.

          It's sanguine, in the least, to think that many of the large tech' firms / multinationals in the U.S - and in their International satellites - don't already have the proverbial NSA "hand up their collective jacksies".

          And you needn't go far for proof it's old news:

          To conclude, if there's any takeaway when dealing with Govt agencies c/w blanket, borderline [neo-] Fascist powers, it's simply this: dis-count nothing, prepare for the worst, and above all ... trust no-one.
      • Apparently commercial systems don't use OS's

        Since no OS has been fully validated and none ever will be.
  • Microsoft's failed business model

    Microsoft is the last one standing that still charges for an OS.

    Microsoft's plan wasn't to use the full Windows 8 for the Post-PC era. No. Microsoft's plan was to use Windows RT (the OS that runs on the Surface tablet). But that has failed. It is one of the biggest disasters in modern computing.

    Now, Microsoft is stuck with its old full-blown and bloated desktop Windows as the only success it has ever had. Trouble is, it'll be death by a thousand cuts, as Windows deflates and users go to other things.
    • RE:

      The paid MS net shills paint a distorted picture about what Windows 8.x is, as opposed to talking to people face to face.
      • The paid MS net shills

        why is it someone cant just find something useful or like MS tech without being shills. are you not will to accept that some people use and like MS software?
        • The real question is...

          Why can't they make a better argument than a simple ad hominem against the OP?
      • Troll comments...

        When you make comments like "paid MS net shills", you discredit yourself and come off as a troll.
        Rann Xeroxx
    • Windows as the only success it has ever had

      Odd because they seem to have more than one profitable division. also winRT ships with every copy of windows 8, which at last count had a bigger market share than OSX or CromeOS. while they have been slow in gaining market shares in the mobile device market; they seem to be picking up stream as time goes on.
      • Market share doesn't mean profitability.

        Compare Android to iOS for a crystal clear example of that.
        • Be careful, Samsung makes more than Apple on phones

          Both revenue and profit.
          • Citation please.

            Also, indicate where Samsung Electronics handset sales exceed Apple iPhone sales. Oh, and don't bother with those Strategy Analytics numbers from July, those are patently false.
        • Posted above...

          ...but will post again for last reported profits on the Windows segment...

          Windows (including Surface tablets and other hardware)
          Revenue: $19,239,000,000 (+5%)
          Operating Income: $9,504,000,000 (-18%)

          Although twilighting, still seems to be a keeper for a while.
          Rann Xeroxx
      • Really?

        Seems I've heard tell of a little business suite called "Office" that has been used by a few people... you know, the one that makes iWork look like it belongs in a pre-K class.
  • Hmm

    Or, there's software that people want on that platform?

    If they truly had a death grip then why do these OEMs have Android and Chrome OS running on many of their products? Yes, some even have these on desktops.