Microsoft should make 'its widely disliked Windows 8' a free upgrade, says analyst

According to analyst firm IHS, Microsoft should copy Apple and make its latest Windows 8.1 operating system free to all Windows users.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

The time has come for Microsoft to take "a page from Apple’s playbook" and offer existing Windows users a free upgrade, claims a new PC Dynamics brief from IHS.

"Apple’s new operating system, OS X Mavericks, is available at no cost to users," a statement to ZDNet from IHS reads. "In contrast, Microsoft is charging $120 for its widely disliked Windows 8, even though the upgrade is also free for a slightly reworked Windows 8.1."

With the release of OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Apple made the update free of charge to existing OS X users. Apple has previously charged $19.99 for OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, and $29.99 for OS X 10.7 Lion.

Microsoft has made the Windows 8.1 update available for free to all Windows 8 users.

"With its aspirational products, Apple is already perceived to be an innovator in many ways, and offering free upgrades is yet another step for the trend-setting leader to strengthen its position," wrote Clifford Leimbach, a memory and storage analyst at IHS.

"Thus, a move like a free upgrade could well be the tipping point for vacillating fence-sitters, pulling them finally into the Apple camp. A Mac could become more appealing to this receptive segment of buyers, especially when free upgrades now — and for the future — are considered in the overall calculations of a new purchase. Factor in Apple’s vaunted ecosystem with its industry-dominant iTunes marketplace for apps, songs and videos, the allure to jump fences could prove irresistible."

The statement goes on to say that while "consumers may not be bolting from Microsoft," they're staying loyal to the Windows brand "not because of any love for the system" but "largely because there are no other alternatives to run to."

"With no viable alternatives, unhappy Windows users will simply hold onto their current version of Windows."

While there's no doubt that a free update to Windows 8/8.1 for all existing Windows users would generate a lot of buzz, and be welcome by those who purchased a computer over the past few years capable of running the operating system, there are a number of differences between the business models of Microsoft and Apple that IHS is overlooking.

The first is that Apple's primary business is selling products, a combination of hardware and software. Microsoft, on the other hand, is far more reliant on software sales than it is on tangible products. This makes it harder for it to offer software for free while at the same time keeping revenues flowing in.

Another factor to consider is support. With the release of OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Apple appears to have stopped supporting older versions of OS X, and is no longer issuing security patches for the platforms. While this is not a problem for people who can run the upgraded operating system, for people who can't – either because their hardware is too old, or because compatibility issues are keeping them on an earlier version on OS X – this is a real problem.

Compare this to Microsoft's Windows XP, whose users will continue to benefit from the protective umbrella of extended support until April 2014 despite the operating system having been first released 12 years ago.

Whenever anyone starts comparing Apple and Microsoft, or OS X and Windows, it invariably turns into an exercise in comparing apples and oranges. The two companies have a different business model, a different customer base, and a different approach to upgrades. Trying to get both companies to adopt a similar business model doesn't make sense. 

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