Looking to break out against the rise of Android and iOS tablets, as well as the falling costs of the Macintosh OSX platform, Microsoft is currently experimenting with a fully free version of Windows 8.1.

Dropping the costs of OEM software from $50 per license to $15 earlier in the week for hardware manufacturers, Microsoft is looking for much stronger market penetration of the Windows 8 platform – an intimidating leap for users familiar with the time-tested service started by Bill Gates. Though this $35 OEM price drop is only eligible for laptops for under a $250 price point, the success of Microsoft’s new program could spell a change to come under new CEO Satya Nadella.

While Microsoft is finding their strongest competition in the open source Android OS, this price change reflects a threat to Microsoft’s territory in a low-end market losing traction to Google platforms. Android isn’t the only service driving the lowered cost as Google’s Chromebook chips away at the Microsoft share of “netbooks”, leaving the Windows OS to only the businessman and the gamer – for the time being.

As sure as Microsoft is about their LIVE platform on the Xbox 360, the Xbox One may not prove to be as successful as Sony’s PlayStation 4 console, and LIVE services cannot transition well to hold the PC gamer without Windows 8 at the forefront. Why? Gamers who use the app store on Windows platforms have access to possibly the most important attachment feature of any game system; Achievements. In Windows 8, users will sign in with a free Xbox LIVE profile and accrue achievements playing games as simple as Minesweeper. This is great for the casual gamer and the hardcore alike, because it helps dedicate you to the service and provides a level field of competition for friends to compare.

The “Steam Box” poses another low-cost dilemma for Microsoft, and points at why becoming free may be the only option to keep gamers attached to Windows. Through achievements, seasonal sales, a fantastic infrastructure, and a new Family Sharing feature, Steam is the single most dominant platform for connecting with friends and playing your favorite game on a Windows PC. Valve, creators of the Steam platform, have now begun using Linux to build the “Steam Box” – a cheap alternative to buying a Windows PC for high-end gaming on your TV within the Steam platform. Currently partnered with tens of PC hardware manufacturers, such as Alienware and Lenovo, the Steam Box is a real threat to Windows.

Where does this all lead for the consumer? Invariably, we can expect Microsoft wants to make a dollar, and historically free operating systems fill up with bloatware to compensate for their dollar. In comes Microsoft’s plans “Windows 8.1 with Bing,” a version that will bundle key Microsoft apps and services. There may be some comparison to take hold of, however. Windows PCs have been filled with bloatware for the last 10 years – Norton, McAfee and other services have been offloaded to our PCs without our consent. Widgets, tooltips and browsers own the landscape of a fresh Windows PC, so why not adopt? The difference is, though our PCs may be filled with bloatware now, Norton is paying companies like Hewlett Packard directly where Microsoft will now rake in the cash. This system might frustrate hardware manufacturers who are already bothered by Microsoft making their own hardware, cutting into their sales.

The question is, what benefit does Microsoft really stand to gain from going free, and what risks do they face? Obviously Microsoft is looking at strong market penetration to save their brand loyalty from the myriad of threats coming at all angles. Adding in face-checking bloatware could give them the exact reverse effect, as well as point manufacturers in the other direction. Stephen Elop may be a direct counter to that issue as Microsoft’s latest acquisition of Nokia and existing knowledge building hardware from their Xbox division could allow them to kick manufacturers to the curb.

Certainly no one wants to put all of their eggs in one basket, and Microsoft isn’t likely to, but the strategy going forward for Windows rides on a delicate road. Is Microsoft ready for the world of “freemium” on an operating system? More importantly, are we?