If Vista were a free product, hordes of us would upgrade immediately. It would take a load off of Microsoft with respect to activation and piracy. It would open the door to charge for support and updates in a subscription based fashion, it would blow all TCO arguments out of the water, it would make a financial dent in many competitors charing for their products, and it would accomplish the biggest goal of all: it would set up the vast majority with a Windows platform on which they could then deploy Office and all the new goodies and initiatives - those mentioned above and new ones, like Microsoft Accounting, Microsoft CRM, and more. And most of all, with its ability to integrate so well with Microsoft Active Directory, it would be a real driving factor to buy Windows Server. Of course, Vista could only be free for the home desktop, the server counterpart would still run about 800 bucks, which is "chump change" to most companies. In fact, as a variation of that, the license could vary: free for home use, but a cost for commercial use. Or maybe free for home use, 50 Vista desktop CALs with each server license. The terms could vary, but once the desktop cost is out of the equasion, the customer base exists.
At this point, Microsoft could be a little creative and maybe optimize Vista to run newer applications. Hey, if you could HAVE Vista but had to spend a few hundred bucks for Office 12 to get real whiz-bang performance, that seems like a good value, right? "It's certainly cheaper than training your employees to use Linux and OpenOffice.org, and it really doesn't cost much when ammortized over a few years. In fact, monthly, my profit & loss statement shows virtually nothing - a few dollars. And boy, Office 12 runs so much faster than Office XP, I really should upgrade the rest of the workstations." Nevermind the eventual upgrade costs to Office, this is a "right now" solution.
Though most of these tech sites have lots of very vocally pro-Linux and pro-Apple visitors, statistics reveal that the vast majority are still running Windows, even if just from work. How many would upgrade to Vista if it were available as a free download? If you could download an ISO of Vista "Home Basic," wouldn't you? Maybe that would even drive you to upgrade to Vista "Home Premium." Or maybe they give away "Home Premium," but it requires a subscription to keep the additional features active. There are a hundred ways to spin this into "a great deal for everyone."
Most importantly, a free Vista would go a long way towards repairing the image of Microsoft as an evil empire. Their campaign to be more "open" is everywhere - their file formats have gone from binary to XML, they have begun releasing open-source code (even to Sourceforge!), and they have committed to supporting new features in IE7, such as additional PNG support, extended CSS2 support, and RSS. Microsoft is very concerned about their image, and their attempts to alter the way they are perceived have been met with varying levels of success. This, I think, is a home run.
I recognize that the liklihood of a free Vista is pretty much nil - stockholders would never stand for a missed revenue stream, even if it meant a much better position in the long run, and Gates and Ballmer are not likely to let 5 years of development walk out the door with no profit. But it seems to me as though there's a lot to be gained. As a strategic company, they ought to be thinking that what we lose today, we make up for tomorrow by building a greater persistent userbase, an even greater presence, and incidentually, a much greater fanbase. I find myself thinking that it's not terrible to sacrifice some temporary flux the present to cement a more pervasive future; it probably extends the Microsoft dominance for some time. All empires may eventually crumble, but if the empire morphed itself into a new entity, it might extend its life indefinitely in new ways. And hey, Microsoft, if you're listening, $100 million in marketing can't buy the press that the announcement would get you.
 Many believe that Microsoft's support for CSS is still insufficient, beyond not supporting the ACID2 test. However, you can't take away the fact that additional support is still very welcome and will make the web a better place for developers.
Adam Scheinberg is an editor for OSNews and serves as the webmaster as well.
- "A Free Vista, Part I"
- "A Free Vista, Part II"