Why would Microsoft release a free version of Windows 8.1?

New reports suggest that Microsoft could bundle Windows 8.1 and Bing into a low-cost bundle. 

A low-cost (or entirely free) version of Windows 8.1 may be on the way.

According to a pair of reports – one from The Verge and the other at ZDNet – Microsoft is mulling the release of a low-cost Windows 8.1 and Bing bundle. 

The Verge, which cites "sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans," speculates that the company may go so far as to make the whole product entirely free. "We’re told that Microsoft is aiming to position Windows 8.1 with Bing as a free or low-cost upgrade for Windows 7 users," The Verge's Tom Warren wrote this week. "Any upgrade offers will be focused on boosting the number of people using Windows 8.1." 

Couple things to note: First is that Microsoft hasn't commented on or confirmed the reports (although The Verge is typically pretty reliable, and the fact that ZDNet is reporting something similar suggests that this is something more than idle gossip-mongering). The second is that this bundle, if it does indeed appear, won't be a full-scale Windows 8.1 suite. 

Instead, it's more likely to be stripped-down and streamlined – a "just the essentials" kind of package.

But as Darrell Etherington of TechCrunch notes, that may make sense for Microsoft. The Washington company is facing a new landscape – one in which companies such as Apple offer free operating system upgrades. 

"For now, it looks like Microsoft will retain a paid tier for OS software and just offer low-cost or free options to capture more of the bottom end of the market," Mr. Etherington writes, "but if the focus shifts to software and services, we could be on the brink of a sea change that sees a larger shift to free when it comes to platform technologies." 

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