Can Microsoft’s Free Windows Compete With Android?

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Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) announced at the Build Developers Conference earlier this week that it has created a free version of its currently little-used Windows mobile operating system called Windows for Internet of Things that can be licensed for free to hardware makers on devices with screens smaller than 9 inches. This is a key move by Microsoft and new CEO Satya Nadella to better compete in the mobile sphere, but will a free Windows OS be able to compete with that other ubiquitous free OS, Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Android?

Up until this point, Microsoft had charged $10 per device for hardware makers to use its platform. Since the market is completely dominated by Android and Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS, there wasn’t much motivation for anyone to make a product running on Windows anyway. Now that it’s free, however, more companies may consider using Windows for their products.

“Microsoft is evolving its Windows business model to enable partners to offer lower-cost devices in the highly competitive smartphone, tablet and PC categories. Microsoft will offer to hardware partners $0 Windows with services including a one-year subscription to Office 365. With Windows 8.1 Update hardware partners can also more easily build lower-cost machines — such as devices with 1 GB of RAM and a 16GB hard disk drive — without sacrificing the experience customers expect,” the company said in a press release.

Another key aspect of the improved Windows OS is a new tool for developers that allows apps to be created that can function across Microsoft platforms, including PCs, mobile devices, and the Xbox video game consoles. Cross-platform applications are a first for Microsoft. It is part of the company’s transition to a mobile-first strategy without abandoning desktops completely by encouraging content that can be used by a wide variety of Microsoft products. Developers will be able to create one app that hypothetically would work across all Windows products. It would also unify Windows as one platform across all devices it puts out.

The free Windows OS is different from Android in that it’s not open source, which means that hackers won’t be able to access the code running the entire system, making it more secure than Android. It also means that Windows OS won’t become as widely used as quickly as Android. Wired ran an in-depth article discussing how a free version of Windows is exactly what Microsoft needed to encourage the adoption of the OS, especially if the free version can eventually be used across platforms like the new universal Windows apps.

The question still remains of whether Microsoft has any hopes of catching up in mobile. Former CEO Steve Ballmer said that his biggest regret during his time as the company’s CEO was missing out on the smartphone. Currently, the iPhone and Android devices made by Samsung (SSNLF.PK) account for virtually all of the smartphone industry’s profits, with all other competitors lagging far behind in terms of both revenue and market share.

One area in which Microsoft stands more of a chance with its free Windows OS is wearable devices. Most recognize wearable tech as the next big frontier for mobile, and that under-9 inches stipulation would apply to smart watches and smart glasses. If developers can be convinced that Windows is a good choice as a platform for wearable devices since it’s free and the entire system’s code is not easily available online, then Microsoft may get a leg up on the next wave of mobile tech after missing out on the first.

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