A closer look at the prospect of Microsoft rolling out a subscription model for Windows 8 or 10

There's been some chatter over the last few weeks from multiple sources about the possibility of Microsoft rolling out a subscription-based model for Windows 8 or 10 at some point in the not-too-distant future. The big question is: What would such a model look like? And indeed, what kind of compelling features would it offer? My personal, knee-jerk reaction to the latter question is "Nothing," but after further consideration, I think this could actually be a net benefit for Microsoft's various customers.

I'm serious. Stop laughing.

Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet broke the idea and Peter Bright at Ars Technica has spent some time discussing how the plans might come together. The basic idea is that one version of the operating system (possibly without the Desktop) would be available to everyone for free, while the full-fat "Original Windows" Desktop version would be available on some sort of subscription plan. Nobody knows what the particulars of any such system would be, so we're just discussing the potential shape of things, the challenges, and the potential benefits.

Want to rent software? Stop breaking it

Right now, the single biggest barrier to a subscription system for Windows, regardless of any other factor, is that Windows users have no idea what kind of product they'd actually get. Windows 7 was a huge improvement over Windows Vista, but desktop and laptop consumers generally dislike Windows 8. Try to force customers to use it through some kind of recurring monthly plan – particularly customers with non-touch systems – and you'd have IT riots.

I've refused to recommend Windows 8.0 or Windows 8.1 because, while I acknowledge that most of what I dislike about the Metro/Desktop collision can be turned off or disabled, I refuse to pay Microsoft money for what I view as a fundamentally unfinished, broken product. The Metro/Desktop integration is still too haphazard and irritating for me to feel the product is worth paying for.

It looks like with the official return of the Start menu, Windows 8.2 might finally fix that, but if I was paying the company a monthly or yearly fee, I'd feel like I'd been paying for nothing. The issue of how older OS versions would be dealt with as new products rolled out is a major question Microsoft would have to answer.

Features, price, and support

Giving the Metro side of the equation away for free but charging for the Desktop might be interesting as an OEM program aimed strictly at tablets versus real PCs, but attempting to tie that option to a subscription service would be incredibly confusing – particularly if OEMs were allowed to market systems as shipping with 30-day "trials" of Microsoft Windows, or if Desktop access arrived fully configured but locked down later.

One of the criticisms levelled at Adobe's Creative Cloud that the company actually responded to was the issue of data access – CC customers who unsubscribed would effectively lose access to previously stored data, forcing them to pay for software they weren't necessarily using just to keep previous assets. That's not something Microsoft customers could tolerate – if grandma doesn't pay her subscription fee one month, locking her out of her software is going to go down very poorly. Windows 7 and Windows 8 both use the "annoy the customer to buy a legitimate OS copy" method, as opposed to "lock the customer out of their own system," partly because it's a lot easier to justify – Microsoft would have to thread this needle carefully.

Where this could get interesting is if it allowed Microsoft to maintain older OS versions or build specialised software to support small user bases. Where it could trip them up is the question of when users must upgrade versions. They're shoving IT departments hard towards Windows 8.1 Update 1, having extended a 30-day update window out to 120 days – but that's not useful to the corporations that are only just rolling out Windows 7.

If a low-cost subscription service gave companies or individuals the option to continue using existing products and allowed MS to fund continued security patches, that's one thing, but I think any attempt to use the service as an upgrade hammer would fail, badly.

Why I might subscribe

I bought a copy of Windows 7 Pro in 2010 for $140 (£85). I thought that was a fair price at the time, and I'm still pleased with the value it offers. I could see paying a yearly fee for Windows if it included features like:

  • Multiple installation keys within a single subscription bundled at a cost of $10-$15 (£6-£9) per year.
  • The continued ability to install unlicensed or unactivated versions of the software, possibly subject to a reasonably generous use policy. As a reviewer, I do a lot of system building and OS installation.
  • The ability to download and maintain updated OS images. Right now, it's a royal pain to install Windows 8.1 to every testbed, because non-MSDN customers without retail Windows 8.1 keys haven't had an easy way to download 8.1 images. Scrap that whole system and give us MSDN-like access to OS images.

I could even see this kind of arrangement as being good for the PC industry – if it extended to the OEM space, it might let manufacturers offer cheaper systems and pass the cost of the OS subscription on to customers as an option rather than a mandated feature. But all of this relies intrinsically on a model where Microsoft can be trusted to deliver regular updates that its customers want, that it doesn't disable access to systems in the event of a subscription cancellation or failure, and that Microsoft doesn't try to nickle-and-dime its customers to death.

What about you? Could you ever see yourself buying into an OS subscription system? Even if you do, do you think MS could ever pull it off?


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