In a world of free operating systems, can Windows 10 survive?

Will we give up a decades-long relationship with Windows just because it costs a few bucks more than its competitors? In a world where PC adoption has cratered, what of the future of Windows? David Gewirtz makes the case that there's still life in them old bits.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Windows: The extension of a beautiful friendship?

The latest version of MacOS, called Sierra, started trickling out to Macintosh owners yesterday. And, like all macOS (or OS X as it used to be called) releases since 2013, it's free.

Let's take a quick moment to look at the big OS platforms. On mobile devices, there's iOS and Android. Updates to those (when they're available -- I'm talking to you, Android), are free. Then there's Windows mobile. Since its adoption is a mere rounding error compared to the others, when I talk about Windows in this article, I'm really talking about desktop Windows -- even though I've previously made the case that Microsoft is actually ahead of the curve in mobile.

Then there are the dead trees of the computer industry, the old desktops and laptops that were once universally adopted, but today are experiencing a level of free fall unheard of outside the worlds of bookstores, malls, newspapers, cab drivers, land lines, and, everything else the internet has touched and killed.

The big four desktop operating systems are macOS (once called OS X), Linux, Chrome OS, and, of course, Windows.

For those of you who don't think Chrome OS should be included in that list, let me remind you that Chromebook sales have been growing in certain segments, most notably education, but the category is still a very small percentage of the overall PC or tablet market. Everything, including my Aunt Molly's Etsy store, has been outselling non-laptop Windows desktop machines for long enough that ZDNet UK's Editor-in-Chief Steve Ranger headlined an article this week "The PC is broken: Time to fix the business model or quit."

And, yes, I know Chrome is based on Linux, just like Android is based on Linux, and macOS, the former OS X, is based on Mach and BSD. With the exception of Windows, all modern mainstream operating systems can trace their parentage to some form of *NIX.

Windows is now the exception in one other way. It's the only major operating system you still have to pay for. Windows 8.1 was a free Hail Mary upgrade for Windows 8. Windows 10 was free for a year.

But now, if you want to use Windows 10, you have to pay for it. Well, mostly. Sort of. As is always the case with Microsoft products, there are a host of exceptions, special cases, and enterprise pricing models.

First, of course, if you buy a new PC, it usually comes with a copy of Windows licensed to the hardware. So, starting at roughly the price of a low-end Chromebook, you can get a Windows laptop or desktop, complete with a free-of-charge Windows 10 license.

As existing Windows PCs age, they will likely be replaced. When they're replaced, assuming they're not replaced with a tablet, a Chromebook, a Mac, or even a Raspberry Pi, they'll include Windows 10 on them. That's probably how most new Windows licenses will get out in the world.

There are also, of course, all the corporate licensing agreements. Those organizations -- again assuming they haven't found a better, cheaper, cloud-based solution -- will purchase Windows 10 (except for the diehards who refuse to buy anything but Windows 7). When judging Windows staying power, the enterprise channel is key. Many PC and Windows sales metrics are based solely on retail sales numbers, but the corporate world buys a tremendous number of computers outside those channels, a fact to keep in mind when looking at the market overall.

We can all pretty much agree that Windows has some staying power. That said, when I asked our resident Windows soothsayer Ed Bott about actual numbers of users, he told me, "Given that PC sales are flat or down in recent years and are probably close to the replacement rate, it's likely that the very large Windows installed base is shrinking slowly."

The operative word here isn't "shrinking," it's "slowly". There are millions of users out there who have good reason to stick with Windows. Many of them will continue using it because the learning curve for a different operating system is either too much work, or just simply unnecessary. Others will stay with it because Chromebooks, tablets, and other "appliance-like" machines just don't have enough power and flexibility.

Still others will keep using Windows because there are important, deep, capable applications that run only on Windows. I run Windows in Parallels on my iMac specifically because there are applications (like Autodesk Inventor) that only run on Windows.

Some people need both. I adopted the iMac because I need to use applications that only run on the Mac, and others that only run on Windows, to do my job. I used to have two machines with a KVM, but with enough RAM, ripping fast flash storage, and a good VM engine, it's very practical to run both OSs on one machine.

Beyond application requirements, enterprise volume licensing agreements, and even learning curves, there's one other factor that will keep fueling Windows use for many users: Windows is a friend.

Windows 1.0 to 10: The changing face of Microsoft's landmark OS

For many of us, Windows has been with us for decades. As with our closest friends, we've learned its quirks, its annoyances, and its odd twitchy behaviors. We also know we can count on it when the chips are down, and it will get the job done. We know how to use it, install it, tweak it, customize it, fix it, and push it to its limits and beyond.

As long as there's hardware to run it, and Microsoft keeps it updated and safe, we'll keep using it. After all, a hundred or so bucks every few years is a small price to pay for maintaining a relationship with a trusted, loyal friend.

Personally, just because I jump between macOS, Chrome OS, Linux, and Windows for desktop work doesn't mean any one of them is a favorite. I choose the OS that best fits my needs, and you should, too. Don't believe the naysayers. Windows isn't dying. It's just not the only game in town anymore.

Like an old friend who's no longer the star quarterback, Windows 10 is a little more humbled, but a little more reasonable. Microsoft is listening to its users, building solutions across platforms, and working hard on building better products. I like where Microsoft is going with Windows. While the PC business model is broken, there will always be a space for Windows on our computers and in our hearts.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect more accurately the difference in sales numbers between retail and enterprise.

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