The rumours were true: Microsoft has announced Windows 8.1 with Bing , a new version of Windows 8.1 available only to hardware manufacturers.
The new edition of Windows appears to be the same as the standard version of Windows 8.1 (complete with this spring's Windows 8.1 Update), but with one major distinction: Windows 8.1 with Bing ships with Microsoft's search engine set as the default in Internet Explorer.
That's no major change in and of itself, as Windows 8.1 already defaults to Internet Explorer and Bing. Hardware partners can change those settings on the devices they ship with normal versions of Windows, however. It seems that's verboten for PC makers who embrace Windows 8.1 with Bing. End users will be able to change that in the browser's settings, however--Microsoft's in no rush for another regulatory spanking, it seems.
Beyond that, Microsoft notes that "Some of these devices, in particular tablets, will also come with Office or a one-year subscription to Office 365."
Leaks about Windows 8.1 with Bing first sprung in February, suggesting that the edition would be stuffed with Microsoft services in order to provide the operating system for cheap or possibly even free to hardware manufacturers. Documentation leaked shortly thereafter stated that "Windows 8.1 with Bing helps OEMs add Windows to low-cost devices while driving end user usage of Microsoft Services such as Bing and OneDrive."
Indeed, Microsoft's announcement of the new edition of Windows is rife with commentary about reducing the hardware specifications for Windows 8.1 and quotes like "many of these lower cost devices will come with a new edition of Windows called Windows 8.1 with Bing." Taken together, that strongly suggests that Microsoft is providing Windows 8.1 with Bing to its hardware partners at a discount--no surprise considering the company's waging a price war with Google for the hearts and mind-share of the next generation of technology users.
Microsoft already made Windows free for phones, small-screen tablets, and so-called "Internet of Things" devices under 8 inches at this year's Build conference. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine Microsoft just giving Windows 8.1 with Bing away for free in Chrome OS-like fashion to PC partners--the company's still playing from a position of strength in the PC market and needs to make its Windows money somehow. If Windows 8.1 with Bing is indeed being provided at a steep discount to hardware partners, however, we may start seeing more low-priced (and moderately performing) Windows machines to counter the Chromebook threat.
Look for the first devices packing Windows 8.1 with Bing to be announced at Computex in early June.