03 April 2014

Microsoft targets Android, makes Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 free on all sub-9-inch devices

Free Windows
Microsoft has been spinning its wheels for years as it tries to get traction in the smartphone and tablet market. At the annual Build conference, the software giant announced a strategy it believes will finally get its mobile ambitions out of this rut it’s making the software free. Not free to you personally (though that might come later), but free of any OEM licensing fees on devices with screens smaller than 9 inches i.e. every smartphone, and smaller-screen tablets. That means Windows Phone 8.1 and regular Windows 8.1 won’t cost OEMs a dime on those devices going forward.

When Microsoft relaunched its mobile strategy with Windows Phone 7 way back in 2010, the small licensing fee was presented as a good thing. OEMs would pay Microsoft a few dollars per device and have the backing of the company’s massive patent portfolio drawing a stark comparison to the free Android platform. Microsoft representatives were fond of saying a free operating system is never really free, and the company certainly saw to that by extracting licensing fees from various Android OEMs for alleged patent infringement.

It now appears that Microsoft’s efforts to increase the cost of Android for OEMs hasn’t put a dent in Google’s dominance of the mobile space. Android is shipping on more phones and tablets than ever while Microsoft barely ekes out a distant third place position. The company is certainly singing a very different tune about licensing fees now, but it’s not clear sailing even at the low price of free. It’s worth noting that, as recently as last month, Microsoft was looking at releasing “Windows 8.1 with Bing” for free an effort that might still come to pass.

By setting the limit for free licensing at under 9 inches, Microsoft is seeking to protect its revenue stream from laptop Windows licensing. Windows-based devices smaller than that have seen such pathetic levels of adoption that Redmond isn’t going to experience any substantive losses from this move. Still, with a free license for Windows 8.1 some OEMs might get in the business of making an 8.9-inch tablet a capable stand-in for 10-inch and larger Windows devices. However, as Chrome OS continues to eat away at Windows laptops, Microsoft might have to be even more flexible.

The offer of free Windows 8.1 licenses comes alongside the launch of universal apps. This will allow developers to build apps that work on Windows 8.1 tablets as well as Windows Phone 8.1 devices. Making both of these platforms free on a range of devices could help to beef up Microsoft’s app marketplace, which has been suffering badly from sluggish adoption of Windows Phone and Windows 8. Even if OEMs make Windows 8.1 devices, Microsoft needs the apps to get anyone to use it when there are already massive Android and iOS app ecosystems.

Nokia Lumia 930 Windows Phone 8.1

Windows Phone has fewer supporters to even be tempted by this deal. Samsung has shown almost zero interest in Windows Phone recently as the Galaxy brand has become synonymous with Android, and HTC can barely get people to buy its Android devices lately. Nokia’s impending marriage to Microsoft also means this free arrangement is of little consequence for that company.

Making the OS free could amount to a hail mary to attract more smartphone partners, possibly among Chinese OEMs that have traditionally been all Android. If this change along with the updates to Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 can’t get OEMs on-board, Microsoft might be looking at a troubling future in mobile.



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