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Bing's the thing in Microsoft's push for cheap Windows devices

Big OS discounts for OEMs if they stick to Redmond's search engine

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Microsoft and its hardware partners are gearing up to push out a new wave of low-cost Windows devices, thanks to a new edition of Windows 8.1 that will be available to OEMs at a lower cost – or even for free.

Redmond marketer Brandon LeBlanc announced the new version, dubbed "Windows 8.1 with Bing," in a blog post on Friday. But he was almost meticulously vague about what actually makes it different, and other Microsoft reps haven't been much help, either.

"Windows 8.1 with Bing provides all the same great experiences that Windows 8.1 offers with the Windows 8.1 Update, and comes with Bing as the default search engine within Internet Explorer," LeBlanc wrote.

So it's the same as Windows 8.1, and it comes with Bing as the default search engine in IE – just like Windows 8.1 does now. When El Reg asked what, then, made it "a new edition of Windows" (as LeBlanc called it), Microsoft wouldn't tell us anything, saying only, "more info will be available in the coming weeks."

Sources tell us, though, that this is really just a new licensing option for OEMs. Ordinarily, when OEMs preinstall Windows on their devices, they are free to customize their Windows drive images in various ways, including changing the default IE search engine. If they license Windows 8.1 with Bing, however, the default search engine must always be Bing. They're not allowed to change it.

This distinction only affects how hardware vendors can package Windows, not how customers use it. "And of course customers will be able to change that setting through the Internet Explorer menu, providing them with control over search engine settings," LeBlanc wrote.

What OEMs get if they license Windows 8.1 with Bing, however, is a lower-priced OS – which means, in turn, that they can ship devices with cheaper price tags.

This isn't the first time we've heard rumblings from Microsoft about keeping the cost of Windows devices low. At this year's Build conference in San Francisco, Redmond's operating systems chief announced that Windows would actually be available to OEMs at no cost when installed on tablets with screens smaller than nine inches.

On Friday, LeBlanc reiterated that some vendors would be able to get Windows "for 0 dollars," but he didn't mention a specific price for Windows 8.1 with Bing. It seems likely, however, that the new edition might be the only version of Windows that Redmond will license for free, and that it will also be available at an as-yet-unspecified discount to OEMs that want to build devices with bigger screens.

There may be another catch in some cases, too. According to LeBlanc, "Some of these devices, in particular tablets, will also come with Office or a one-year subscription to Office 365."

Microsoft has experimented with bundling Office with Windows before. Every Windows RT device ships with a version of the suite, and Redmond execs have said that makers of small Windows Pro fondleslabs would be able to ship Office for free, too.

By insisting that vendors bundle a subscription version of Office if they want to get a cheap rate on Windows 8.1 with Bing, Microsoft could get a huge increase in customers for Office 365 – which would be great marketing for Redmond's for-rent software scheme, even if many of those customers quit using it after their free year was up.

LeBlanc's post didn't say when we can expect to see the first devices running Windows 8.1 with Bing in stores, but he said we can expect a number of vendors to announce new Windows devices in the weeks leading up to this year's Computex conference, which will be held in Taipei on June 3 and 4. ®

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