By offering users of Windows 7, XP and Vista discounts to upgrade to Windows 8, Microsoft is putting itself in a position to reap both benefits and criticism in the consumer operating system market.
Giving PC owners an incentive to put Windows 8 on their machines helps Microsoft because, if they upgrade, they will be less likely to switch to a competing platform such as Apple's Mac OS.
However, because Windows 8's main innovation is its Metro interface, designed with touchscreens in mind, consumers who upgrade now could be disappointed if their machine can't take advantage of the new functionality.
In the past month, Microsoft has announced two offers for consumers to upgrade existing PCs to the new OS, which is expected to ship before the end of the year.
"The low-cost upgrade to Windows 8 is a wise strategy for Microsoft. The cost of upgrading is the main reason people stay on outdated versions of Windows," said David Johnson, a Forrester Research analyst.
The offers show that Microsoft is finally beginning to understand the strategic cost of having huge numbers of consumers on old versions of Windows, he said via email. Windows XP, for example, first shipped in 2001.
"Being forced by their employers to work on Windows XP has been driving people toward Macs and tablets," Johnson said. "Microsoft's future viability depends on how fast it can get new value in the hands of users. A high cost of upgrading has been slowing them down."
However, the upgrade incentives can be a double-edged sword, because touchscreens, touchpads and mice that support gestures are important to providing a good experience with Windows 8, according to Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst.
"Most PCs that will really make Windows 8 work well won't ship until the OS does. People upgrading older PCs is actually a risk for Microsoft because they may not be as happy as users that have new PCs tuned for Windows 8," Silver said. "Users that upgrade should ensure they have either a touchscreen or a touchpad or touch mouse that supports gestures in Windows 8."
Microsoft should help users understand how suitable their existing system is for Windows 8, but it's unlikely the company will go as far as to advise users to reconsider their input devices during a Windows 8 compatibility check, he said via email.
"People who don't have the right devices for working with Metro will be wondering why they [upgraded], at best, or regretting the decision, at worst, and any bad buzz on this is bad for Microsoft," Silver said.
One of the offers is directed at consumers who buy new Windows 7 PCs between June 2 and Jan. 31 next year. Available in 131 markets, this offer lets these customers upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for $14.99.
Microsoft hasn't disclosed retail prices for shrink-wrapped, standalone versions of Windows 8, but the current equivalent to Windows 8 Pro, Windows 7 Professional, is priced at $199.99.
Windows 7 editions that qualify for this offer are Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate. It doesn't cover Windows 7 Starter, the most basic version for consumers, nor Windows 7 Enterprise, designed for workplace PCs.
Consumers who qualify don't necessarily have to install the Windows 8 Pro upgrade on the Windows 7 PC they bought during the offer period. They could install the OS on an older PC running Windows XP, for example.
The other offer, announced this week, is for people who bought their Windows PC prior to June 2 and are running Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7. They will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro via download for $39.99 or by purchasing a DVD at a retail store for $69.99. The offer ends Jan. 31 and, like the other upgrade deal, is available in 131 markets.
Windows 8 Pro is the most sophisticated of the two versions of the operating system for PCs and tablets running x86 chips from Intel and AMD. The other version is called simply Windows 8. Both versions come with Metro and the option to use the traditional Windows desktop.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.