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Windows 11 Upgrade Conundrum: You'll Be Expecting It For Free, But Will Microsoft Ask You To Pay?

The teaser image for the next Windows release (Image: Microsoft)

The teaser image for the next Windows release (Image: Microsoft)

The timing is such, Windows 11 after all its testing, will likely release in Fall 2020. That's when the Apple macOS Monterey upgrade, will also be rolling out.

The much-awaited next generation of Microsoft Windows is very much on its way. Some are already calling it Windows 11. There is a supposed leaked build doing rounds too, though we’d strongly suggest you do not install that on your PC, purely because it is not official, and we don’t know where all it’s been. Yet the question of the upgrade to the next Windows will crop up sooner or later. Will it be a free upgrade, as in your simply download and install it on your PC once the consumer rollout happens? What really are the options on the table for Microsoft regarding getting people to upgrade from their existing Windows iterations, be it Windows 10 or Windows 8.1 or even those still clinging on to Windows 7, to the new Windows 11? There are a few different ways Microsoft can approach this.

While it has been a long time since Windows 10 rolled out back in 2015, there may just be a continuity of time when Windows 11 rolls out sometime this year, for all of us. The upgrade for Windows 10, from Windows 8.1, Windows 8 and Windows 7, was the first time in the history of Windows upgrades, to be offered for free. Initially the plan was to offer it free for a year, in the hope to quickly get people to upgrade to Windows 10. But happily, for those who didn’t, that option remained available long after the initially planned 365-day deadline was ticked off. Can Microsoft really charge for Windows 11 as an upgrade now? There may very well be an argument here about the step forward that Windows 11 may bring, and the premium-ness attached to that. All the software smarts cost money to make, and if compelling enough, can often get folks to pay up.

At this point, you’d also have to make note of what Apple does, with macOS upgrades. For a few years now, macOS upgrades for the annual iteration change, have been offered as free to download. The only criteria you need to be ticking off is that you should have a Mac computing device that is compatible for the upgrade. There too, Microsoft keeps the canvas comfortably wide. For instance, when macOS Big Sur rolled out in Fall last year, machines as old as the MacBook Air from 2013, Mac Pro from 2013, Mac Mini from 2014 and the MacBook Pro from Late 2013 and later were compatible with the new operating system. That is a good up to 7-year window leading up to 2020. Chances are that a majority of users wouldn’t actually have machines older than something that was already 6 years or so old, at the time of upgrade.

But Microsoft may have a challenge on its hand, exactly on this point. Compatibility of hardware. Apple knows exactly, every single Mac sold over the years, inside out. Microsoft does not have the same luxury with hundreds of laptop makers selling countless variants and spec combinations for laptops running Windows 10. The problem gets compounded once the even older ones still running Windows 8.1 or Windows 7, try to enter the party. It may be less of a problem for Windows 10 machines, but would the older lot be ready to run the new Windows, and not compromise on the experience? Remember the debacle that was Windows Vista, many years ago, which significantly bumped up the hardware requirements and PCs upgrading from Windows XP, were in for a struggle. A lot of them.

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But can Microsoft have a parallel upgrade system where it may presumably offer Windows 11 as a free upgrade to Windows 10 users, but tell those still with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 that they aren’t welcome, till they get hold of a newer laptop?

It is not exactly true that Windows 11 will be free as an operating system for everyone. If you are buying a new laptop, desktop or convertible PC, you’d be paying for the Windows 11 cost (whatever that may be finally decided) within the price tag. If you assemble your own PCs, you’d be buying Windows 11 licenses too, again at the price that is finally decided for Windows 11. Just as a reference point, Windows 10 at this time is available in three variants—Windows 10 Home, that most of us use, is priced at Rs 10,379 for a single PC license, the Windows 10 Pro costs Rs 16,515 and Windows 10 Pro for Workstations has a sticker price of Rs 22,799. Microsoft still considers the Windows revenue as an important entry on the balance sheets, and that’s the reason why they wouldn’t want to risk overdoing it with paid upgrades.

Could there be a subscription fee? There is a lot of focus, within Microsoft, on subscription fee based services. Much like how Microsoft managed to transition users from the one-time purchase of Microsoft Office to the Microsoft 365 subscription service that includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneDrive cloud storage and more. Subscription prices for Microsoft 365 start at Rs 489 per month, depending on how many users you’d want to set up under one subscription. But the possibility that Microsoft may be able to happily get a majority of users agreeing to pay a subscription to use their PCs, seems quite dim. That is not something folks are used to, and unlikely they’ll want to get entangled in that web of monthly or annual subscription charges.

In all likelihood, we would expect Microsoft to continue with the path it started walking down on in 2015. Windows 11, or whatever it is called, will be a free upgrade at least for PCs running Windows 10. There may be some routes for upgrading Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 machines, specifications and hardware permitting. It is unlikely that Microsoft would want to be seen making upgrades difficult for customers, at a time when Mac users have it incredibly easy with macOS updates. The timing is such, Windows 11 after all its testing, will likely roll out in Fall this year. That is when this year’s big macOS update, called macOS Monterey, will also be rolling out for Mac users. Contrasting approaches will stick out, like a sore thumb.

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