Why does Windows 10 cost money when OS X is free?

Windows 10

Windows 10 is no longer free. As of July 29, a year to the day since Microsoft's release of its pivotal operating system (OS), you can't upgrade your existing laptop, desktop or tablet to the platform for zero dollars, pounds, deutschmarks – you name it.

From here on out, if you want to enjoy the fresh new features and updated protocols for various worthy pursuits, namely gaming, social media, search and cloud computing, you'll have to pay up in the way of $119 (or £99, AU$179).

Now, you might be wondering, "Hey, Apple doesn't charge for its software, so why should Microsoft?" So, why don't we make that crystal clear?

Microsoft was a software company first

Simply put, Windows has been the central pillar of Microsoft's business since its inception. It's only been in the past four years that the 41-year-old company has significantly (and successfully) invested in its own computing – not gaming – hardware to demonstrate the OS's capabilities and to offer the most capable versions of the devices running its software.

Windows 10

Frankly, the expectation that an OS should be free is a combination of misinformation and misconception revolving around the development of Apple's products. Just because they exist within the same general market doesn't mean Microsoft and its arch nemesis should be stacked up apples to apples by the public in how their pricing is perceived.

For the first 35 years of its run, Microsoft merely dabbled with hardware, largely making money selling its Windows software to various PC hardware makers. The cost of which was then and continues to be subsidized into the pricing of devices (and later further by third party software companies).

But, it has also sold boxed versions of the operating systems straight to consumers to install on their self-built systems or upgrade existing machines.

Apple, on the other hand, has done everything, from the hardware to the software, on its own since (well, a bit after, if you ask Bill Gates) the start in 1976. When you buy a MacBook or an iPhone, it comes with software that the hardware maker also made for it. Considering Apple's premium pricing for all of its products, that cost of making the OS was in part subsidized that way.

Windows 10

Arguably, Microsoft works in the same way with all of its Surface devices. Beyond its self-made hardware, you could pick up a brand new laptop, desktop or tablet with the Windows 10 installed, which is kind of like getting the interface free, but not really because (again) it's subsidized into the price of the device.

Ultimately, that $120 price tag will only affect users who didn't upgrade in time or are building a new PC. Otherwise, like the future iterations of MacOS and the last few versions of OS X, Windows 10 will get free updates for the next decade.

Catching onto content and continuity

Aside from producing a handful of devices, Microsoft's main focus remains squarely in software, including its Office 365 productivity suite and a few mobile apps – and not to mention its cloud services business Azure.

Windows 10

Conversely, Apple caught on quickly to other ends of the software industry, namely digital media and the mobile app economy – arguably having a hand in their creation. The company's steady stream of revenue from these channels allowed it to adjust the pricing of its other software offerings, the ones that are sort of the keys into the company's castle of digital transactions.

As in, the operating system and its most important apps. They're now free on all Apple products, essentially. Free admission is an effective means of getting people into your stores. Because of this, tech customers have come to expect "free" updates for their expensive devices.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has only begun achieving a similar hardware-to-software ecosystem in a meaningful way within the past five years. It's turning the corner, but by nature Microsoft will never truly adopt a similar model whole cloth. It simply can't abandon what it's built.

And Microsoft will always be a software company first

Now, do you see why this free year of the Windows 10 upgrade couldn't go on for much longer? This release will vastly change the firm's approach to the operating system moving forward. And that's not only in that this will be – for all intents and purposes – the final version of Windows, but that eventually Windows 10 will reach ubiquity in its communities, and direct sales will dry up.

Windows 10

In the meantime, Microsoft needs to continue charging for the OS because it has little other means of subsidizing the cost of its creation. Thousands of people work hard on the creation, maintenance and development of an OS, work that has to be paid somehow. (If it works out, those costs will largely be covered in digital media and app sales before long.)

And, judging from the changes brought to bear in the Anniversary Update, they're working to make sure that every box earns your $120. Even if you somehow missed the free upgrade, you'll see the value in the new way of using Windows minutes after installing. (Just check out the features we've published this Windows 10 Week for more about that.)

Windows costs money now, frankly, because it has to. What I like to call "The Apple Effect" has caused consumers to always expect free major updates from their devices. Now, after you pay the $120 price of admission, you'll get the same treatment there on out from Microsoft.

But, since Microsoft doesn't have the same structure as its rivals, it has to work perhaps a little harder to earn your appreciation for its software. And maybe, just maybe that makes the difference between its OS and its rivals' products.

This article is part of TechRadar's Windows 10 week. Microsoft's latest operating system turned from a free to a paid upgrade on July 29, and we're looking to answer the question of whether it's good for you.

Joe Osborne

Joe Osborne is the Senior Technology Editor at Insider Inc. His role is to leads the technology coverage team for the Business Insider Shopping team, facilitating expert reviews, comprehensive buying guides, snap deals news and more. Previously, Joe was TechRadar's US computing editor, leading reviews of everything from gaming PCs to internal components and accessories. In his spare time, Joe is a renowned Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master – and arguably the nicest man in tech.