Report: Microsoft considering a free version of Win8.1

Would you upgrade to Windows 8.1 if it were free? PC users may get the chance with a special, Bing-infused version of the operating system. According to stories at ZDNet and The Verge, Microsoft is experimenting with "Windows 8.1 with Bing," a slightly tweaked version of its latest operating system that would be a "free or low cost" upgrade for Windows 7 users. It's unclear precisely how this version of the OS differs from the standard one, but Microsoft will reportedly rely on Bing and its associated apps—News, Weather, Health & Fitness, and so on—to generate revenue.

Windows 8 already comes loaded with a bunch of Bing apps on the Start screen, so it's hard to imagine those being featured more prominently. I don't see any advertising in the Bing apps associated with my Win8.1 install, though. A Bing edition of Windows would likely include ads in those apps, if not elsewhere in the OS, as well.

We've heard mumblings about ad-supported versions of Windows for a while, and the prospect seems more likely than ever. A friend of mine who works in advertising once told me that Microsoft was toying with the idea of putting ads in not only Windows 8 apps, but also live tiles. Users would revolt, I replied, but that was based on the assumption that ads would infiltrate the standard version of the OS. People may be willing to tolerate advertising in exchange for a free operating system. They certainly don't seem to mind the concept when it applies to free, ad-supported apps.

I'm not sure that an ad-supported version of Windows 8.1 would necessarily encourage Win7 users to upgrade, however. Folks seem to be holding on to the old OS because they don't like the new one, not because upgrading is too expensive. But PC makers looking to cut costs could be tempted by a free OS, especially in the mobile space, where Windows devices compete with cheaper alternatives based on Android. Microsoft is already rumored to be considering cutting the price of Windows 8.1 for devices that cost less than $250. A free version of the OS would seem to be the next logical step.

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