Some Windows 11 Dev Channel users have reported seeing Start menu advertising or promotions earlier in the week urging them to back up their data to OneDrive, create a Microsoft account, and complete their profile. As the majority of readers went on to criticise Microsoft for pushing what they saw as adverts in their OS, this undoubtedly sparked a lot of discussions on social media sites like Twitter as well as the comments area on our own article.
Fair enough, this response isn’t unexpected. Microsoft has already been exposed for trying File Explorer advertising for Microsoft Editor. The business promptly took them down at that time, stating they were never intended for external publication. Even then, I expressed concern that, despite the fact that this time the banner advertisements were accidentally published, the real issue here is that Microsoft is undoubtedly experimenting with this idea and that it is impossible to predict when the tech juggernaut will decide that it is appropriate to make this initiative available to the general public.
And before I go into more depth, I’d want to underline that, in my opinion, not all of these promotions can be grouped together as “ads.” Depending on how you look at it, I think some of these recommendations are genuinely sound. For instance, you don’t absolutely need to sign up for premium capacities to follow the advice to backup data to OneDrive; you can do it with the 5GB of free storage as well. Should recommendations/tips now be in the Start menu? That is a totally different discussion (but “no” is my opinion).
Additionally, this issue does not only exist with Windows 11. Just to make sure, I launched the Start menu on Windows 10 and noticed a Microsoft Edge advertisement right at the top. You can see it in the screenshot above.
Similar results can be seen when I search for “Download Microsoft Edge” on Google Chrome and “Download Google Chrome” on Microsoft Edge. Please take note that I don’t have any active addons or ad-blockers on any of the two browsers. Use the button in the middle to drag the two experiences horizontally across the widget below, which is a slider:
The user experiences are drastically different from one another. In reality, we recently found that Microsoft is paying individuals to create free Windows experiences that recoup their costs through advertisements and promotions for Microsoft services.
I’m attempting to make the point that Windows 11 ads have been used in the past, with just the sporadic opposition from consumers and media organisations like ours. Consumers only express brief outrage, after which things calm down until the next wave of “promotions” affects our software.
In fairness to Microsoft, I can totally see the appeal. Since you are giving out free OS upgrades to hundreds of millions of customers, you must find a way to make back your investment. But if you’re a customer and are frequently bombarded with advertisements for Microsoft services, is it really a free upgrade? From accessing Microsoft Edge to locking your Windows 11 computer through the Start menu? For millions of users who have no interest in the upselling possibilities, is the monetization possibility worth compromising the user experience?
I believe Microsoft is betting that “yes” will be the answer to each of these queries, which explains why there has been constant effort in this area over the past few years. Many promotions can be turned off through Settings, you could counter, but should a customer be expected to do that in order to have a standard experience?
Don’t get me wrong; I am a devoted Microsoft customer. I’ve always used Windows as my main operating system, I use the Microsoft enterprise and development tools at work, and I’ve had a Microsoft 365 Family subscription for a while now. However, none of these things occurred because of advertisements; rather, they did so because I either adored or needed the items (in this case, Windows) (Microsoft 365).
The true issue right now is that the user experience on many Microsoft services is getting worse to the point where I have started to detest and steer clear of many of them. I still see advertising for Microsoft 365 even though I’ve been a subscriber for years; they’re not even contextual. Instead of using all the information from our Microsoft accounts or telemetry to provide us advertising that might be truly helpful, it feels like Microsoft is shooting an arrow in the dark.
Instead, Microsoft appears to be operating under the assumption that if it advertises Microsoft 365 to hundreds of millions of users, at least one million of them will sign up. But what if the target audience—the other 99% of users—have a terrible experience? Microsoft doesn’t seem to mind because it has a consistent source of income from the additional million subscribers.
And that actually constitutes the main argument of my essay. I absolutely see why Microsoft is moving in this route, but I also believe that the majority of its end users will have a very negative experience. I’m now considering if Microsoft ought to take another SKU of Windows into consideration. The free edition with these adverts would be one option, while an ad-free Windows experience would be available with a one-time perpetual licence. Could they charge for it? Time will tell, however it would be wonderful to have the choice for those who are genuinely annoyed by advertisements.
Although I can see how this increases revenue from Microsoft’s perspective, I would argue that upselling advertisements for Microsoft services should be placed in appropriate areas rather than being crammed into the main UX components. OneDrive promotions and recommendations, for instance, need to be in storage settings rather than the Start menu. But until that occurs, I worry as a consumer about what will come next.