Is Microsoft really planning a free version of Windows 8.1? We examine the rumours
What is it?
A free version of Windows 8.1 available as an upgrade to anyone using Windows 7 – if the rumours are to be believed.
And should we believe the rumours?
Hard to say. As always with leaked details of operating systems, we’re relying on anonymous ‘sources’ close to Microsoft. Technology website The Verge said that “sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans” told them it was just an “experimental project”. However, early versions of the code had already leaked online, along with the license agreement for ‘Windows 8.1 with Bing’ (see screenshot below), so it looks like Microsoft is certainly working on something.
Why would Microsoft give it away for free?
Two reasons. One, because it needs more people to upgrade to the widely unloved Windows 8. And two, because it thinks it can make more money by selling programs and services that work with Windows 8.
But many services already come for free with Windows, so why would I pay for them?
Very good question. It’s what Windows expert Mary Jo Foley asked on her All About Microsoft blog (http://www.zdnet.com/microsofts-monetization-dilemma-bundlings-not-all-its-cracked-up-to-be-7000026852/) in February. As she says, Microsoft already offers “decent freebies” like Office, Skype and OneDrive. The company may have to remove previously free services which users now take for granted, and drive more people into buying extra OneDrive storage (users get 7GB free), as well as services such as Office 365.
But the service Microsoft thinks it can make most money from is its Bing search engine. The more people use Bing, the more money Microsoft will make through advertising.
Doesn’t Bing already come with Windows 8.1?
Yes, in the form of Bing Smart Search (www.bing.com/explore/windows8 search), which lets you search the internet, Windows 8 apps, files on your PC and your OneDrive storage with one click. The title of this rumoured operating system is probably a red herring – it seems unlikely that Microsoft would keep the slightly awkward name ‘Windows 8.1 with Bing’. Yes, Microsoft wants to encourage people to use Bing, but the most important aspect of this OS is that it’d be free.
In the US, Microsoft already incentivises people to use Bing through the Bing Rewards program (www.bing.com/explore/rewards) , which launched in 2010. It rewards members for performing tasks – such as searching on Bing – with credit to spend on Microsoft services like Xbox Live and Skype, as well as gift cards on Amazon. In February, to celebrate the launch of OneDrive,
Microsoft offered members of Bing Rewards 100GB of OneDrive cloud storage in exchange for 100 Rewards credits, which is worth $50. Sadly, there’s no sign of Bing Rewards being launched in the UK, though this would probably change if Windows 8.1 is relaunched as a free upgrade.
Should I postpone upgrading to Windows 8.1?
If you were planning to upgrade to Windows 8.1 soon, don’t let the rumoured promise of a free upgrade delay you. Even by the standards of online speculation, the rumours are very sketchy, and you could be in for a long wait. But some industry analysts see the business logic in Microsoft marketing a free version of Windows 8.1 as a compelling alternative to Google’s increasingly popular Chrome OS, which runs on Chromebooks. It’s the kind of drastic move Microsoft might be forced into if Windows 8 continues to sell poorly.