Why Microsoft Should Make Windows Blue Free

Windows 8's gloomy narrative could be rewritten when Windows Blue arrives later this year. The first step is to give it away for free.
On May 10, Microsoft VP of Corporate Communications Frank X. Shaw struck back at claims that Windows Blue is essentially Redmond's de facto concession that Windows 8 has failed. His umbrage might be justified -- but ultimately, it also doesn't matter. What matters is whether Windows Blue meaningfully heats up the OS's heretofore glacial adoption rate -- and to do that, Redmond needs to make its forthcoming update not only a clear improvement over Win8, but also free.

To be clear, I'm not unsympathetic to Shaw's position, which holds that some online commentators have described Windows 8 with "sensationalism and hyperbole" rather than "nuanced analysis." He's right; Windows 8's alleged failures have become somewhat mythologized, with alleged consequences frequently blown out of proportion.

The OS actually lays some important foundations for the future. By forcing a desktop-oriented OS and a tablet-oriented OS into a single package, Redmond at first seemed to suggest it foresaw a future of all-in-one, do-it-all devices. But it's since become evident that the company envisions Windows 8 uniting devices of all shapes and sizes, from 30-inch table-computer hybrids to 8-inch tablets and potentially even wearable technology. The existing version of Windows 8 is already designed to facilitate seamless transitions among devices, and Windows Blue is rumored to push the concept to new lengths. Personal computing is trending toward multi-screen experiences , and Microsoft's investment in this shift could pay off as the next generation of mobile apps begin to appear.

Given that Redmond made such forward-looking design choices, it's understandable that the company is upset about Windows 8's accomplishments getting less attention than its demerits. That the Win8 narrative has come to define Microsoft in general presumably only adds to the frustration.

In April, for example, a ZDNet column branded Redmond's leadership as a bunch of "idiots," a statement Fox News found worthy of its own story. Microsoft was at the time building new multi-billion dollar revenue streams from Office 365 and Azure, so this Win8-centric echo chamber must have felt like salt smashed into a wound. Windows 8 hadn't debuted well, but it's not like Microsoft is on the verge of collapse.

[ How can Microsoft improve Windows 8? Read 8 Things Microsoft Should Fix In Windows Blue. ]

Even so, Microsoft hasn't helped itself out. The first Windows 8 devices were too costly to lure consumers. The company bungled its OEM relationships during its Surface debut, leading many of its partners to make unsupportive -- and widely reported -- comments about the new OS. Redmond didn't allow users to choose a start-up UI from the get-go. The list could go on, but at this point, it's not useful for Microsoft to point fingers at its tormentors, or for commentators to linger on Win8's initial shortcomings.

Windows 8's legacy will be defined by whether Windows Blue makes us forget the OS's inauspicious start. To do that, it needs to be not only a strong update but also widely installed, so that today's negative buzz is quickly swept away by a new tide of positive word of mouth. The best way to guarantee Windows Blue this exposure is simply to give the update away.

To Microsoft's credit, free upgrades have been part of Windows Blue rumors since they started last fall. The most recent gossip has reiterated this possibility -- but no sources, officially or off-the-record, have confirmed if Redmond will follow through with this plan, or if Windows Blue will be accompanied by a nominal fee.

To be fair, a nominal fee could work. But if Microsoft truly feels that the media is biased against Windows 8, the company has to recognize this: whether or not early Win8 adopters actually feel betrayed by a fee, some major publication or another will waste no time raising the possibility. Even if Windows Blue is a major improvement, in other words, upgrade fees will only provide additional fodder for Redmond's most dedicated critics. Given that Microsoft has been prone to poor messaging since Windows 8 debuted, it doesn't need to fight a PR battle if one can be avoided.

Plus, whatever money Microsoft might recoup from Windows Blue upgrade fees would pale in comparison to the larger stakes at hand. Windows 8, as I suggested earlier, is about an ecosystem. It's not about one device or another, or even the Live Tiles UI; it's about customers buying into a unified experience that spans their various devices, from smartphones to tablets to desktops to whatever else comes next. A strong ecosystem becomes a virtuous cycle; once customers are invested, they not only continue to buy apps and new devices, but also feel increasingly hesitant to jump to a competing platform, where all the products and services they've purchased would have to be rebuilt from scratch.

Ecosystems, though, demand customer loyalty. Microsoft commands loyalty from businesses but has yet to translate that success to the consumer market. If Windows 8 had been greeted as a delightful new experience, Microsoft could have charged for Windows Blue without fear. But, fairly or not, many already perceive that Win8 was only borderline usable, and that the update will turn the OS into what it should have been from the start. Redmond will encourage neither adoption nor positive buzz if it appears to be nickel and diming consumers.

It should be noted that Microsoft is allegedly planning to release Windows Blue as a public preview before making the update commercially available. If the preview is a success, upgrade fees might be less of a concern. Even so, if Redmond considers Windows 8 an investment in its future consumer business, it needs to attract users -- so why place any barriers, even "nominal" ones, in their way?

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