Only Microsoft can save the PC

Only Microsoft can save the PC

Summary: OEMs have responded to the PC sales crisis in a variety of ways. We've seen them try to embrace Android, we've seen them betting the farm on different form factors, and we've seen they try to outgun Apple's iPad. But none of it seems to be working. The ball is now in Microsoft's court.


Much has been written about the shift from the age of the PC to the post-PC era. I myself have spilled quite a few pixels on the subject. But while we've got a pretty good idea of the scale of the problem facing the PC industry, so far ideas on how to help bump up PC sales are thin on the ground.

While the decline in sales of the PC seems to coincide with the release of the iPad, personally I'm not convinced that the iPad was solely to blame. One factor to consider is that many companies had just completed an upgrade cycle to switch to Windows 7, and those PCs will be expected to last a few years before being upgraded again. Another factor is that PCs last much longer than they used to, both because of reliability and because of the performance overhead they bring. Once upon a time you upgraded PCs in order to take advantage of performance gains, but the average PC is now already fast enough that this extra speed doesn't add much value.

Bottom line is that the PC market is pretty well saturated and sales now have to rely increasingly on replacements.

OEMs have responded to the crisis in a variety of ways. We've seen them try to embrace Android, we've seen them betting the farm on different form factors, and we've seen they try to outgun Apple's iPad.

But none of it seems to be working.

I've thought long and hard about this problem, and while I too have considered things like nifty new form factors or price cuts as the way to make PCs sexy again, I've come to the conclusion that there's only one company that can save the PC industry – Microsoft.

And there's only one thing Microsoft can do – and that's start giving away Windows for free.

Now you might be thinking that I'm only suggesting this because Apple is doing the same thing with OS X, and in part you'd be right. Consumers – and even a lot of business and enterprise buyers – don't understand that there are big differences between how the Windows PC ecosystem and the Mac ecosystem work. Microsoft is primarily a software company, and selling software licenses is what props up its bottom line. Apple, on the other hand, is in the business of selling products – a fancy word for hardware – and for it operating systems such as iOS and OS X aren't big money spinners.

So wouldn't Microsoft be giving up a huge revenue stream if it started giving away Windows for the princely sum of $0?

Well, in terms of immediate revenue, yes, it would, but let's put some constraints on "free."

  • First, limit this $0 copy of Windows to upgrade. This means that users should already be running a fully licensed and activated copy of Windows.
  • Secondly limit support to installation. Support costs money, so no freeloading.
  • Exclude volume licensing enterprise users. Again, no freeloading.

With these restrictions in place, the offer of a free Windows upgrade – which is what it becomes – doesn't affect Microsoft income from OEM license sales or enterprise. But it would have a big effect within the consumer market.

  • People are like moths to flames when it comes to free and would be more likely to adopt the latest version. This gives the user base a boost, which is good for encouraging developers to develop apps for the platform.
  • People who can't upgrade are sent the subtle message that their hardware is obsolete and that they should consider buying a new PC. This would be good for OEMs.
  • It generates buzz and gets people talking about Windows and PCs, all of which would be good for the market as a whole.

Microsoft has had a problem getting people to upgrade since Windows XP was superseded by Windows Vista. People clung on for dear life to Windows XP, partly because for many it was the first operating system they encountered and they believed it would be the last.

According to data supplied by metrics firm Net Applications, Windows XP will be powering almost a third of the world's Windows PCs after its April 2014 retirement.

And Microsoft has allowed people to cling onto Windows XP for too long. So many Windows XP users being dragged along beyond the support period for the operating system is going t be a problem for Microsoft because security issues affecting these people will undoubtedly tarnish the Windows brand despite the fact that ultimately the users are themselves to blame. Microsoft needs to send a clear message – perhaps via the Windows Update mechanism – to Windows XP users that the end is nigh for the platform.

And this too would help boost sales of new PCs. 

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Windows

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  • How about fixing Windows 8

    Microsoft's current flagship OS basically gives the bird to the PC users that have made Windows successful over the years. It is up to Microsoft to save the PC, but not by making Windows free. The answer is to release an OS that, you know, actually works intuitively with a keyboard and mouse. People who are aware of the facts simply aren't buying PCs right now, or if they are they are downgrading them to Windows 7. I am very surprised that anybody who is familiar with Windows 8 or like myself, used it when it was in developer preview, is surprised by any of this.
    • You can skip it and still be happy

      When considering the upgrade cycle; XP is expiring and we can chose to go to Win 7 or Win 8. When Win 7 expires, we can chose to go to Win 8 or Win 9. If your unhappy with Win 8 use can completely skip it, and still keep your computers up to date with fully supported Win software.

      A lot depends on Win 9 in that situation, however my guess is Satya Nadella will make Win 9 a great system because he knows what typical power users and business want. Probably will split Win 9 into a mobile versions, and desktop version. Too early to tell.
      Sean Foley
      • I would not assume that Nadella is going to reverse any of the major ...

        ... changes in Windows 8 - except to further extend the integration of Windows 8 into the OS. The Metro interface is the cornerstone of Microsoft's future in the consumer space. In the enterprise, nothing changes.
        M Wagner
    • I use Windows 8

      and I wouldn't go back to 7 if you paid me, and yes, that is on my desktop and laptop. I find Windows 8 has many subtle improvements over Windows 7.
      • re: I use Windows 8

        For me it's the opposite, you couldn't pay me to use Windows 8 with it's pre-school Fisher-Price UI.

        I have other things to do than updating my Facebook page ...

        To each their own.
        • Fisher-price?

          People said the same thing about XP
          By the way win8 is much less fisher-pricery than any other system before it. Desktop is really clean without any fake "aero" crap. I use win8 and win7 every day and I prefer win8.
          • AERO went away because users wanted longer battery life ...

            ... more than they wanted a shiny interface. You cannot have both.
            M Wagner
          • I love AERO.

            I don't care about battery life on my PC! I want, and love, an immersive experience.
            I love the cues within the edges of the current windows, that show what is happening "in the background".

            When I want good battery life, I go to my tablet. And I don't care who's OS is on it. But when I want to get something done, the PC is IT!
            I am Gorby
          • The Metro UI was dead in the water before it hit the stores.

            Simply said, it is UGLY! Only a nerd would willingly use it.
          • I'm One Of Those Nerds.

            Who uses both Windows 8 AND a Macintosh.
            Sorry, but Tech is Tech is Tech.
            I use what OS is popular NOW.
            That's personal choice.
        • Some people...

          ...have called iOS7 about the same thing. The best one I hear was it looked like a Care Bear puked on it.

          Nice thing about Windows and that Start Menu is that you can bypass it and install either Classic Shell or Start8. You can also set your W8.1 start button to launch you into All Apps.

          If you remove all Metro apps then you should never be bumped into Metro ever.
          Rann Xeroxx
          • Rann Xeroxx: You just defined Microsoft's problem

            MS should (and should have) offered Win 8 in configurable versions: (1) Start menu, Aero Interface (which I like), mouse and keyboard interface for PC/workstation users, and (2) Metro with Tiles and Touch interface for tablet/phablet users. It could even have been made to boot up the appropriate version after inspection of the hardware being used on the machine. Their big mistake was trying to force the Metro interface on PC/workstation users. I'll stick with Win 7 until that happens.
      • your choice

        Fine for you. I worked with win 8 for a year trying to like it, then went back to Windows 7. It is a better experience, and not nearly as ugly as Windows 8.
      • Groan...

      • I agree with wright_is

        I'm with you on this one. I am so used to Windows 8 and its many benefits, there is absolutely nothing in Windows 7 that could be seen as an advantage. The Start menu is a non-event and the most childish argument I've heard in decades. Windows 8 is light years ahead and there's certainly no going backwards for me.
      • With minor tweaks...

        I have a dual booting desktop and a laptop. Both run Windwos 8, albeit with "Classic Shell" added to give me back the desktop functionality of Windows 7. I have helped several very technically illiterate friends and family members take adavantage of good deals on new laptops whcih came with Windows 8 by adding Classic Shell. None have a problem using Windows 8, as long as the start menu is there. I know of no one using Win 8 with Classic Shell who pines for the return of XP or Win 7. Microsoft, you might want to take note. Leave Metro there for hte phone and tablet users, but give the desktop users back their desktop and start menu.

      In fact, not only is MS software bad, but they now make equally lame hardware to match.

      The only reason MS is still afloat is because of creative accounting and the fact that businesses have not yet fully moved their processes into this century.

      Consumers have already jumped ship, because Windows has sucked from day one!

      Businesses stay with MS because of legacy and compatibility. The legacy issue is eroding fast, as many companies run virtual machines of software they already own.

      The compatibility issue is virtually non-existent now, as most software is compatible with Office, and sophisticated spreadsheets can be ran in the cloud, nullifying the need for Excel.

      That leaves thousands of companies paying MS billions for crashprone, buggy, unreliable, insecure, virusprone spaghetti code, that's remanufactured every few years with a new UI and a new price, for the same refried MS garbage!

      The Enterprise is slowly waking up to these expensive tactics used by MS. In fact, many are moving away from MS as we speak, but when that happens completely over the next few years, make no mistake... MS is done.
      • That's an opinion

        And it would probably be prudent to understand the difference between having an opinion, and something being characterized as "a fact." Best not to conflate the two.
      • You're full of it ...

        What a bunch of bull**** ... you must be smoking some good weed ...
      • it sounds like the google kool-aid your drinking is the super strong stuff

        because i've never seen somebody post anything as idiotic as you do on an everyday basis.