Will Verduzco · Dec 11, 2013 at 04:30 pm

Microsoft Considering Free Versions of Windows Phone and RT: Too Little, Too Late?

It’s no secret that despite their previous successes in both the mobile and traditional computing spaces, Microsoft’s market performance as of late has been lackluster. And while sales for all of their platforms are currently suffering to a degree, it’s really only Windows Phone and Windows RT that are in serious trouble. Why have these two OSes struggled to gain any sort of traction? Part of this is due to the confusion of simply offering too many different versions. But that’s not the only reason. Though they generally offer optimized performance and a great user experience, industry adoption on either seems to be stagnant. Why? The answer is simple. Google’s Android.

To see why Google poses such a threat to Microsoft’s attempts to regain its former smartphone glory, let’s look back at why Android became so successful in the first place. In a world dictated by OEM profit margins, it’s hard to argue with “free.” I use free in quotation marks for two reasons: First, in order to access the Google Play Store in official capacity, you need Google’s seal of approval. And in order to get this, you quickly have to venture outside the realm of the increasingly few open source first party Android apps. Second, thanks to industry litigation, some of the major OEMs have to pay royalties to Microsoft when building atop the Android platform. But regardless of these issues, “free” is still better than paid licensing.

But if you think Android only became successful because of it’s “free,” you’re wrong. Let’s take a look back at the history of Android. When it first launched, the smartphone landscape was quite different. Back then, Apple’s iOS offered some legitimate innovation in the form of new UI paradigms that were, at least to a certain degree, well ahead of the competition. Back then, many outside of the “draconian” Apple ecosystem wanted a viable alternative to Apple’s growing stranglehold on the market. Sure Windows Mobile existed, as did BlackBerry and Palm, but none of those captivated consumers like the iPhone.

Now let’s take a look at what Microsoft is contemplating. A story published earlier today over on The Verge detailed a potential path for Microsoft to help it better compete with Android. According to the story, Microsoft OS Chief Terry Myerson is considering removing licensing fees for Windows Phone and Windows RT, in the hopes of recuperating these losses with ads and subscription revenue. Clearly, Google dominates the market both in mobile ads and online services, and much of this is undoubtedly spurred on by the exponential growth of Android. Having free versions of Windows would (in theory) put Windows devices into more hands. And once it’s in more hands, people will naturally use Microsoft services.

However, the market today has changed, and it has changed dramatically. There are currently plenty of options in the mobile marketplace. Sure, Android is the only alternative to Apple iOS that has actually gained any significant traction, but the fact remains that other touch-friendly options do exist—and many of these options are legitimately free, no quotation marks. Thus, it’s no longer “good enough” to simply be free. Rather, any OS that hopes to stake its claim in the mobile OS pie has to offer something special—be it apps, groundbreaking features, or incredible user friendliness.

Ultimately, the mere fact that Microsoft is even considering such a dramatic shift in their business model makes it absolutely clear that they are targeting Google smack dab in the middle of their crosshairs. Whether this succeeds, and even whether this comes to fruition, is yet to be seen. As it stands, it’s hard to define just what Windows RT brings to the table that cannot be accomplished by other tablet-friendly OSes such as Android and even Microsoft’s own Windows 8.1. However, perhaps the picture is a bit rosier for Windows Phone, as it now is starting to gain much more third party developer attention. One thing is clear, though: The mobile OS wars are about to get a whole lot more exciting.

Is it too little too late, or do you think Microsoft can actually fight fire free with free? Is Microsoft just mad that they got Scroogled? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

[Sources: The Verge, Chart generated from data from IDC]


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