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As reports of Microsoft aggressively attempting to upgrade any machine that it can onto Windows 10 hit the news, a question I’ve been asking myself is “why are they doing this”?

When this offer was originally announced, I assumed there must be some catch. Why would Microsoft give away one of the biggest money-makers they produce? A lot of the original suspicion was on the “free for a year” wording. Would this mean that there would be some sort of subscription model introduced after this year, with everyone that has upgraded trapped into having to sign-up?

The fact that Microsoft is being so forceful in pushing out these upgrades suggests that this is not going to be the case. It is one thing to make this offer for people to proactively seek out and install if they wish – perhaps hiding references to future subscriptions in the terms and conditions that no-one reads. It’s another thing to all but insist you upgrade and then pull a move like that.

The Apple model

So if the money isn’t coming from future subscriptions, where is it coming from? Another point being made a lot at the time was that Apple give away their operating system upgrades, so it makes sense for Microsoft to follow suit. However, Apple make all their money on the hardware that the operating system is running on. Microsoft don’t have this luxury (with a few notable exceptions like the Surface devices). The operating system IS the product for them – not just an extension of the product.

Avoiding another Windows XP

Microsoft had big problems as Windows XP reached the end of its life (to the point that the end of its life was extended). Many people (especially businesses) could not see the gain in moving off of Windows XP. Everything they used worked on it. Why pay money to, at best, keep things working as they are?

This is very stifling from an innovation standpoint. As a developer in that situation, of course you are going to ensure that your product works on Windows XP, because that’s what the people spending the money are using. Therefore, you have to ignore all the fancy new things you could do, because the customer base is all using a 10-year-old operating system. And they’re sticking with that operating system because your product still works on it….

Once the majority of people were cajoled into moving to Windows 7 (largely forced by Microsoft cutting support for Windows XP completely leaving no choice but to upgrade), they then proceeded to completely ignore Windows 8. In some cases, this was due to what seemed like major changes to how the operating system worked (in reality, these could easily be worked round to present a pretty much identical desktop to Windows 7). However, the main reason for the cold shoulder was that, again, there was no compelling reason to upgrade. Everything worked on Windows 7…

Offering Windows 10 for free was one way to kick people out of that loop. Now cost isn’t a factor in the upgrade (aside from the cost to business of a proper rollout, of course). And, of course, the time limited factor is another push to get the upgrade done sooner rather than later.

But this still doesn’t answer the question of “where is the money?” As useful as it is to have everyone using your latest operating system, they’re not likely to be doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.

Buying Windows

One thing that’s easy to forget is that people rarely go out and buy the newest version of Windows to install on their current machine. They stick with what it came with until it reaches its useful life, and then they go and buy a new one, which invariably comes with the latest version of Windows.

So, in a way, these upgrades haven’t really cost Microsoft much money at all. No-one was going to go to a shop and buy a boxed copy of Windows 10 to upgrade their machine, so all these upgrades aren’t lost sales. No money is being lost if it wasn’t going to be spent anyway.

This then allows 3rd party developers to focus their attention on the new operating system, as they know a large percentage of their client base will be using it. Then, in a couple of years when it no longer becomes cost effective to continue supporting older versions, any stragglers will be forced to upgrade to Windows 10 (at this point, no longer for free).

Additionally, the free upgrade only applied to users already running Windows 7 + 8. Any manufacturer supplying Windows 10 with a new machine has had to pay for that licence, both during this free offer, and in the future.

So this explains how they can afford this free offer, but it still doesn’t present a compelling reason for the push to upgrade.

Windows 10 as a sales tool

Here we come to one of the two big reasons Microsoft is so keen to move everyone to their new OS.  The industry is very different to the one that Windows XP was released into. Now, rather than everything running from software running locally on desktop machine, there has been a massive shift to things running from “the cloud” from a multitude of devices. Microsoft desperately need to gain a foothold in these areas.

There’s the obvious sales tools like the Windows Store. This is a non-optional store front that comes with Windows 10. Much like Apple’s app store or Google’s Play store, this allows you to buy “apps” to install on your machine. You can buy the latest versions of Office this way. Perhaps more importantly, Microsoft will be taking a cut of any 3rd party apps you purchase this way.

Not all of the sales pushes are this overt. There are plenty of areas that Windows 10 is geared towards trying to sell you Microsoft services. That “Search Windows and the web” box uses Bing to search rather than Google. This is Microsoft trying to get you to use their search engine instead of Google. There’s not money in the search results themselves, but there’s a LOT of money in the ads that come along with the results.

Also, there’s been a huge push in driving people towards storing their files on their “OneDrive” cloud service, to the point that it is the default save location for Office. The first chunk of space here is provided for free, but if you’re using it by default and saving all your data there, that space is going to run out a couple of years down the line. Then you’re going to have to start paying for more storage.

Mobile

Onto the final likely reason for this free offer. Microsoft currently problem with the mobile world in that they don’t really have any presence there. This is a massive issue for them. There’s no point being the world’s leading provider of desktop operating systems when no-one is using a desktop computer any more.

Windows 8 was an attempt to create an operating system that worked on both desktop computers and mobile devices alike. However, many argued (myself included) that this new start menu design was geared far too heavily towards mobile devices, and made no sense on a desktop.

They have attempted this feat more successfully in Windows 10. Desktop users get a familiar Windows 7 style interface, and mobile users get something closer to the Windows 8 default.

The point of all this is that they are desperately trying to nudge people into choosing devices with their operating system installed rather than Android or iOS. In providing this free upgrade to millions of users, they are providing massive exposure to this unified interface (which they’ve also applied to their Xbox One consoles). Presumably, the hope is that when you next come to buy a mobile device, you might consider the one running the Microsoft system that you are already familiar with, and that automatically syncs all your data between devices using your Microsoft account.

Of course, I could be completely wrong with all of the above, and there’s some other motivation that I hadn’t considered! These reasons seem like fairly safe bets though. Time will tell if they succeed.

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