Microsoft Reportedly Planning OS X-Style Cheap, Annual Windows Updates

Microsoft might be figuring out that the best way to get users to use its product isn’t by charging an arm and a leg for updates and releasing them only once every few years. Redmond is reportedly switching to an approach like that taken by rival Apple, delivering inexpensive, annual updates that are less dramatic but which are designed to get all users on board a unified platform.

Apple follows a similar pattern with OS X, one which began taking shape with Snow Leopard, with lower upgrade costs for it and subsequent versions, and culminating with the release of Mountain Lion this year, just one year after the introduction of Lion in 2011. For Apple, it’s a model that makes sense; the company has never been very stringent about anti-piracy measures for its desktop OS, even when it used to cost considerably more money. That’s because Apple makes money on hardware, and that’s its primary focus. Software is a tool it can use to drive more hardware sales, not its central focus.

For Microsoft, shifting to a model where, if The Verge’s sources are correct, updates to future versions of Windows after itĀ institutesĀ this strategy will be cheap or even free, the ramifications are very different. The program begins with a version called Windows Blue, according to the report, which echoes an earlier one by ZDNet. Windows Blue will arrive in the middle of next year some time, and will bring modifications to the user interface, along with deeper platform changes and the aforementioned drastic shift in pricing.

What’s changed? Well, Microsoft has been changing its business in a number of ways recently. First, Windows 8 actually ships with ads included. Second, there’s much more focus on the Windows marketplace as a distribution method. And finally, Redmond is making its own computer hardware again, and selling that hardware directly to consumers, which is a marked departure from its sole dependence on OEM PC-maker partners. A changed Microsoft means that it can pursue a different plan for building and shipping software.

And while it’s easy to see this as Microsoft following a trick that has worked for Apple in the past, it’s more about evolving desktop software to mimic mobile platform iteration cycles. Consumers are doing more and more of their computing on mobile devices, and a mobile OS updates more frequently than we’ve traditionally seen on the desktop, with punctuated bursts of feature additions and plenty of maintenance updates.

If Microsoft is serious about unifying its platform experiences across various types of devices, including the Xbox, Windows PCs, tablets and smartphones, than this type of upgrade path and aggressive pricing makes plenty of sense.