Windows 10: Buy cheap, buy twice, right? Buy FREE ... buy FOREVER

What I've got you've got to get it put it in you

Bank vault

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Microsoft wants to give me Windows 10 for free! Hooray for freebies! OK, some of my software no longer launches or works quite the way it’s supposed to, but I got used to that after upgrading to Windows 8, and then again with Windows 8.1.

Free software, yay! Give it away, now!

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To be honest, I only thought about clicking on the "Reserve my copy of Windows 10" button the night before the launch, so my invitation to begin downloading will probably turn up in my inbox around Christmas time. No problem, I just used the direct download link and installed it on a virtual machine anyway.

But of course, a virtual machine. Windows 10 on a live work computer? I’m not that dim.

Windows 10 looks very nice sitting out of harm’s way for the time being. Yet whenever huge profit-hungry companies give stuff away for free - especially big, valuable goods such as major operating system upgrades - I can’t help wondering, for at least a few seconds, why they’re doing it.

I understand the concepts of promotion and publicity in a commercial environment. I am especially familiar with the notion of “exposure”, since startups and charitable organisations occasionally ask me to work for them in the expectation that I will be overjoyed at the prospect of earning this uniquely worthless currency.

That reminds me: I must call up my accountant and ask if he’ll prepare both my company accounts, not for payment, but for “exposure”. Later, I’ll nip out and tell the soul-crushed, penniless owner of the local franchise coffee shop that I’ll take a large latte to go, without paying, of course, because it will bring her “publicity”.

Perhaps I’ll ask my window cleaner if he’ll accept “exposure” instead of the usual £20. Window cleaners seem to enjoy lots of exposure, if the likes of George Formby and Robin Askwith are to be believed.

So what’s in it for Microsoft that it would give away Windows 10?

It’s easy for Apple, by comparison, to give away OS X and iOS upgrades because it’s part of the Apple (cough cough) ecosystem. The company can tell prospective buyers that its expensive hardware comes with free system software updates for the reasonable lifetime of the kit. It’s a selling point, see? It makes buyers think they’re safe sticking with Apple.

Back when one-time Apple CEO Gil Amelio opened the door to third-party Mac clones, the policy of unlinking the operating system from Mac hardware was a financial disaster. Amelio effectively allowed Apple to morph into a crappy little software company that just sold operating systems at zero profit, while the big money in selling computers was sucked away by Mac clone manufacturers such as Motorola. It was one of the first licensing deals Steve Jobs axed upon his return.

But Microsoft doesn’t sell computers. Well, there’s the Surface Pro, but that’s not so much a computer as a bottomless pit of unaccountable expense.

“Why would anyone buy a separate laptop and tablet for work when they can buy a Surface Pro?” asks Microsoft’s advertising. I’ll tell you why: because it would be significantly cheaper to buy the separate laptop and tablet. Holy cow, the price tags on those Surface Pros make Apple Stores look like pound shops.

Let’s take it for granted that Microsoft isn’t a company that needs “exposure”. Duh, Micro-who? So there must be a hidden catch. For example, when Apple gave away millions of copies of the U2 album Songs of Innocence in iTunes, it wasn’t done to enhance customer experience but, one might argue, to give an oblique nod to the Irish government for favouring Apple’s European HQ with an artificially low tax rate for all these years.

One theory is that a product giveaway creates a market where there wasn’t one before. While sneakers, basketball boots and tennis shoes have been popular outside the courts for many generations, it was only when Nike launched that trainers became part of the international leisure wear uniform. Legend has it that, in the early 1970s, Nike mailed a free pair of trainers to every sports and leisure journalist in America, turning a small sportswear trading company into a multimillion dollar business within a very short space of time.

Whether or not the legend is true, it’s a method that works. Before 2012, nobody but HP component bundlers, tech writers and people who dress like Jimmy Savile had heard of Beats Audio. Then came the London Olympics, whereupon every competing athlete found a pair of hideous Beats headphones waiting for them on their pillow on the first evening.

Soon, every bleeding athlete was to be seen wigglin’ and a-jigglin’ past the TV cameras and up to the starting line while wearing a pair of plasticky cans brazed with the distinctive “b” motif. Suddenly, Beats was hot property and everyone around the globe now wanted to listen to music using a device that looked like it had been cobbled together out of squeezy bottles on Blue Peter.

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