Cortana and the return of the Start button might have hogged most of the headlines in the Windows 8.1 Update 1 event yesterday, but what could really turn the world of computing on its head (oh yes, I think it is THAT significant) is Microsoft’s decision to make Windows freely available for devices with screen sizes of less than nine inches. Now,there might be some fine print in that offer somewhere but on the surface, it seems pretty clear that Windows Phone and Windows for sub-nine-inch tablets just went free. A reporter asked for a clarification in this regard at the Microsoft press briefing in Delhi as to whether it would be only Windows 8.1 or also Windows Phone that would be free for (relatively) small-screened devices, the answer he got was: “Treat both OSes as one.”
And I daresay that decision will cause some foreheads in the Googleplex and Cupertino to furrow. For make no mistake about it, this is Microsoft throwing the digital kitchen sink at the mobile market. A company manufacturing a sub-9.0-inch tablet, a phablet or a phone has a new OS to consider, one which is nowhere as popular as Android (or iOS) in the mobile space, but has phenomenal brand equity in computing in general. Which could address one of the biggest problems that consumers have faced about Windows Phone and smaller Windows tablets: the relative absence of choice. In India, most stores barely offer you six to ten devices running on the OS, with generally one or two options in a price segment. That’s a far cry from the abundance that you get from Android. Even the old argument of “not enough apps” might not last for long, given the fact that Microsoft is pushing the “one app for all Windows” policy letting you get an app that you can run on your PC, phone, tablet and even television with just a single payment. If that does not get developers excited, we have no real idea what they are on.
That said, we don’t think that the decision will result in Windows Phone devices that will threaten the top end of the market and take on flagships like the iPhone 5s or the Galaxy S5. Quite the contrary. The most successful Windows Phone is actually the one with the smallest price tag – the Lumia 520, which is currently retailing in India for a price in the vicinity of USD 130 and is selling like hot cakes. And, mark my works, it is in this relatively lower price segment that Windows could wreak havoc. And we say this based on the comparative performance of a low-end Windows Phone with a similarly priced Android one – unlike Android, Windows Phone does manage to work smoothly on even relatively modest specs, and well, with Nokia’s camera and map apps set to get universal for most Windows devices, and support for high-profile Xbox titles in the pipeline, users might actually have a lot to look forward to when it comes to preinstalled apps. In the case of tablets, we actually have seen a number of users love the compact tablets from Dell and Acer simply because they were shrunk forms of their office PCs and notebooks, even if they did not have the smoothness of UI and snazzy design of the iPads.
As we said, we do not have the fine print, which we are sure will include some basic hardware requirements before someone can get even a free Windows license, but if the success of the Lumia 520 is anything to go by, the move to make Windows free for all devices with relatively smaller displays will result in a spectacular increase in the number of Windows phones and tablets in the middle and lower price segments, which is where the really big sales figures reside. And there lie Android, and some of the older iOS devices. No, I don’t see a high-end Windows Phone or Windows tablet upsetting Google’s or Apple’s flagships, but I would be very surprised if Windows’ market share of tablets and phones did not go up in the coming days.
This is Microsoft out to get volumes in the mobile computing market. And not too many companies play the volume game better than the big M from Redmond.