For months, it's been rumored that Microsoft
would unveil a new version of Windows 8.1
with specific Bing branding and a lower price tag. Now the company has formally unveiled the SKU, which will carry a "reduced cost" to manufacturers of PCs that cost less than $250. Microsoft also
makes Windows free to devices with a screen smaller than nine inches, What this means is that devices that sell for less than $250 and have screens smaller than nine inches will get W8.1 + Bing for free. Other devices will be able to buy W8.1 at a reduced price, but the scope of the discount isn't known.
The impact on the end user of the "with Bing" SKU is minimal. A system that ships with this version of Windows is required to default to using Bing rather than an alternative search provider. You, the end user, are absolutely free to change your own default settings -- there's nothing stopping you from coming home and setting your browser to DuckDuckGo, or Google
, or Ask.com. There's no giant co-branding effort, and these systems don't come with a default load of Microsoft apps or services that differs from the standard Windows 8.1 installation.
Given that the change is tiny, you might wonder why the company is willing to create an entirely new SKU around the concept. The answer has a great deal to do with human psychology and the default effect (closely related to the status quo bias).
The Power of Defaults
For decades, researchers have known that default positions have an enormous impact on human behavior. Simply put, under most circumstances, most people don't change them. This has been studied in multiple fields and disciplines -- even when changing the default is simple and straightforward, most of us don't
. There are a variety of theories to explain why, ranging from a trust in the pre-selecting group or party to an unwillingness to expend cognitive effort to evaluate the other options. For our purposes, it's enough to recognize that the majority of users won't change away from Bing
if Bing is the default engine.
Of course, Microsoft wouldn't make this change if it didn't believe Bing could actually deliver equivalent search results (the company has trumpted its Bing It On program as demonstrating this, though researchers have disputed the claim). Nonetheless, it's easy to see how default control has given Microsoft some of its most powerful monopolies -- from IE bundling to instant messenger programs, this is a stick that Redmond has wielded to good effect.
What's changed is that in the past, it never gave those capabilities away with a free copy of Windows. This is a sign of adaption to changing times -- Microsoft is clearly tiptoeing towards the free OS model, and looking for other ways to create market share and revenue for itself in an environment where OS sales are an increasingly small part of its pie.