Microsoft announced today that almost everyone will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 for $39.99 for the first few months after it is released. That is far less than Microsoft has ever charged in the past for a Windows upgrade. It’s an uncharacteristically aggressive move for Microsoft, which seems energized by its do-or-die attempt to create a platform that will work seamlessly across all of your devices, big and small.

Apple has led the way with cheap operating system upgrades for the last few years, charging twenty or thirty dollars for recent updates to OS X. In some ways this is an overdue move by Microsoft to achieve parity, but that doesn’t make it any less welcome.

There are details, of course. The offer runs through January 31, 2013. Pricing has not been announced for a non-upgrade copy of Windows 8 during or after the promotion. The discount is for a downloaded copy of the OS (extra charge for a DVD), but you’ll be able to do a clean install from the downloaded installation file by turning it into an .ISO file and making a bootable DVD or USB stick. There will be rules about how much will be preserved in upgrades from different versions of Windows: a fairly seamless upgrade for Windows 7; a nearly complete rebuilding from scratch for Windows XP. (The details are here, as far as they’re known now.)

There is much speculation in the tech world about Microsoft’s motives for offering the low price. Most of the articles discuss the need to get as large a base as possible “to encourage developers to create new-style Metro apps that only run on Windows 8.” That’s certainly part of it.

What I see is another piece of a staged rollout of different aspects of Windows 8 that will make it look inevitable by the time of its release – perhaps with enough momentum to help it survive the onslaught of criticism from people who resist change and will dislike the interface changes. Acceptance of the operating system for computers is certainly important but Microsoft’s real goal is to create understanding of how Windows 8 unifies the experience of using all the different sizes and types of devices. Look at what Microsoft has done in the last few weeks.

  • You might not have seen much in the mainstream press about the preview releases of the version of Windows 8 for PCs but the tech world has been testing and prodding and commenting and praising and complaining about the computer OS for weeks.
  • Microsoft got the world’s attention with the announcement of Microsoft Surface, a Windows 8 tablet.
  • Windows Phone 8 got its first unveiling the following week but the real push for that will come later, when there are specific new models to display from the manufacturers. Microsoft is holding some of the new phone features close to its vest (with coy hints about how wonderful they are, if only it could tell us).
  • A new version of Microsoft Office will arrive with Windows 8. A preview version of Office 2013 will be released before the end of July. Its big selling point will be the availability of Office programs on all your Windows 8 devices, not just your computer, with app-sized versions preloaded on Windows 8 tablets and improvements in Office Web Apps for working in a browser. All your files will be accessible across all your Windows 8 devices, courtesy of Skydrive.
  • This week the focus is on price, trying to remove a barrier that might have slowed adoption.
  • Expect announcements about new form factors that might catch your eye – perfected versions of notebooks with detachable screens that turn into tablets, for example, or who knows what else.

Businesses have been forced to work with iPhones and Android phones but the experience is anything but seamless. More and more of my time is spent counseling people who are getting disappointing results from attempts to sync Android phones and iPads and competing mail platforms and a plethora of file formats. The unexpected reaction to Microsoft Surface shows what a hunger there is for something that looks like a fresh start, especially if it will work with Windows computers. Microsoft is on message in a way I haven’t seen them in a decade. If it can deliver, it might surprise everyone by how much of its prestige it can reclaim.

If it can deliver. Cross your fingers.

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