Microsoft announced on Wednesday that it’s planning to bundle a basic version of Office with cheap 7- and 8-inch Windows 8 tablets. While at first glance it’s difficult to take issue with Microsoft giving something away for free, it signals a new era of low-end Windows devices that feels all too familiar.

The netbook era returns

Back in 2007 Asus unveiled its Eee PC. Complete with a 7-inch display, lightweight chassis, keyboard, and Linux, it signaled the beginning of the netbook trend. The presence of Linux on a consumer device forced Microsoft to cut the price of Windows XP licenses to ensure PC makers created a range of low-cost Windows-powered devices. It jumpstarted a race to the bottom between PC manufacturers, resulting in cheap and small devices that didn't replace notebook PCs, just as pure tablets don't replace laptops today. Thanks to low-cost devices like the Nexus 7 and iPad mini, Microsoft has been forced to follow the same path again, cutting the price of Windows for small devices.

To most consumers, Office is a part of Windows. If you've ever worked in retail, support, or you're just the techie in your family then you're bound to have experienced someone asking you how to obtain a copy of Office. Microsoft's plan to make ARM-based tablets appealing to consumers resulted in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote being bundled with Windows RT. The approach was understandable — a push to sell Windows-based tablets — but RT comes with a desktop mode that doesn't work with an existing library of traditional desktop apps. This has generated confusion, and Microsoft is adding to this greatly by attempting to leverage Office even further with 7- and 8-inch Windows devices.

Which Windows tablet gets Office?

Upcoming Windows 8 devices with small displays (under 10 inches) will come bundled with Office 2013 Home & Student, a version of Office that includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. If you walk into a store later this month and purchase Acer's 8-inch Windows 8 device you'll get the free version of Office, but if you opt for a 10-inch Windows 8 Acer tablet you won't. Alternatively, if you opt for a 10-inch Windows RT device, like the Surface RT, you will get a copy of Office that also includes Outlook RT. If you purchase a 7- or 8-inch Windows RT device when they’re available you'll also get a free version of Office. If it all sounds confusing, that’s because it is.

Consumers will now need to consider whether a free version of Office will come with their tablet of choice, and the merits of a desktop version of Office on an 8-inch device are debatable. If the decision between Windows RT and Windows 8 was already difficult, it just got even more confusing. Microsoft wants PC makers to create these small Windows devices, and it's clear why: PC makers have started showing signs of interest in Chrome OS laptops, bundling Android apps on PCs, and even producing machines that run Android and Windows on the same device. Microsoft is generating a whole new race to the bottom in order to flood the market with cheap Windows tablets and fend off competition from Google's software offerings.

If it all sounds confusing, that’s because it is

Windows XP wasn't fully ready for the netbook form factor, and Vista was designed for more powerful hardware, but Microsoft cut its Windows XP licensing costs for PC makers in an effort to stem Linux-based netbooks. They flooded the market with poorly designed, cheap, and underpowered devices. Consumers thought they were getting a small notebook replacement, but in reality the experience was less than stellar. The problem with Microsoft's latest approach is that the company is gambling on consumers seeing past the Office confusion, and betting that PC makers will start creating high-quality devices. Unlike the netbook era, there’s a huge choice of tablets these days. If time has taught us anything, it’s that confused consumers will go elsewhere.