Is this the era of free operating systems?

Microsoft's "devices and services" mantra means that the company, eventually, has to make Windows free.
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor on
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.

sign off

Editorial standards