On Wednesday, Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 10, made a splashy debut on millions of computers around the world at the same time. For Microsoft, the 40-year-old company that famously wanted to “put a computer on every desk”, this was unprecedented.
For decades, the company made billions of dollars selling Windows either as shrink-wrapped software or bundling it with new PCs. With Windows 10, there’s a crucial difference: anyone with a copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8 can upgrade to Windows 10 for free.
Depending on how you look at it, this is either Microsoft stepping boldly into a brave new world where operating systems are given away for free — Apple’s OS X has been free since 2013, iOS has been free for years, and Google’s Android has been free since the day it was conceived — or doing some serious damage control on the heels of the debacle that was Windows 8.
Windows 8, Microsoft’s last operating system, released in 2012, alienated millions of people by artificially bolting on a touchscreen interface onto an operating system that was primarily meant to be used on desktops. Wired’s David Pierce summed up its problems in a single sentence: “Windows 8 was full of jarring movements, from full-screen app to full-screen settings to full-screen Start; unless you knew the complicated gestures and keyboard shortcuts, getting around was a chore.”
With Windows 10, Microsoft is putting the desktop first — again. Gone are the live tiles that took over your entire screen when you clicked on the Start button. Instead, the familiar Start menu is back and is faster and more intelligent than before.
Microsoft’s touch-friendly apps now run side-by-side with their traditional mouse-and-keyboard counterparts in separate windows and not full-screen by default. There are also additional features like Cortana, a voice-activated digital assistant, and a brand new browser called Edge, which replaces Microsoft’s infamous Internet Explorer, and lets you annotate web pages.
But, more importantly, Microsoft is emphasising the relevance of Windows 10 by billing it as an operating system for all modern devices — from smartphones and wearables to glasses and holographic computing.
“For a while, everybody thought that the PC is the centre of all computing. That certainly changed to phones,” said Vineet Durani, director of Microsoft India Windows Business Division, to Hindustan Times. “What’s the guarantee that the phone is going to be that centre for a lifetime? One single form-factor is not going to be the hub of your world forever. Windows 10 is an operating system for all the various kinds of devices we’ll see in the future.”
To achieve this, Microsoft wants to get as many people as possible on the new operating system, which is one of the reasons why the upgrade is free for eligible users. Microsoft will make very little money on the consumer version of Windows 10, but it will recover some of its costs from manufacturers like Dell and HP, which need to license the operating system from Microsoft, and the rest from enterprise users, who still need to pay the company for the upgrade.
With Windows 10, Microsoft skipped a version number — Windows 9 never saw the light of day — partly to distance itself from Windows 8 and partly to send a message about how significant this upgrade is. As it goes head to head with competing devices from Apple and Google, which have captured both mind and market shares seemingly overnight, Microsoft has its job cut out for it.