Today we learn that Basic D&D will be a free PDF. We'll get the basic four classes (fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric) up to level 20 and the basic four races (human, elf, dwarf, and halfling). The analogy drawn is between Rules Cyclopedia and AD&D. I'm not entirely sure how well that analogy holds up (TSR made a big deal back-in-the-day about D&D and AD&D being completely different games), but it does make it fairly clear where their thinking is.
available for free for years now. So are the rules for Pathfinder, via the SRD. Skirmisher's Bookforge project is largely tentpoled by free rules.
I suspect Basic D&D will be different in that it'll be a much prettier thing. It will include art and layout and such optimized for an electronic document. If WotC is serious about this thing, it should also include a basic character generator that will walk you through the process and give you a character sheet you can print out at the end of it. It should also come with a basic dice-roller for folks who've downloaded the game but don't have a local store to get dice TODAY! I doubt they're that serious about it, alas, and we'll just end up with a basic PDF that might include bookmarks and have lots of pretty art in it.
Of more interest to me is how this turns the conventional wisdom, well, not quite on its head. WotC is still planning to sell big, expensive coffee-table books (though those who claim they'll never play the game due to the expense have just had the rug pulled out from under them in an amusing way by Wot€) and I suspect the sale of those books is considered the backbone of their income strategy. The loss-leader is now a bit more out-and-up-front for them. After all, while many RPG publishers do offer free PDFs of their rules, they don't treat those PDFs as “product” in their own right. This is WotC making a big production of the loss-leader, which, honestly, is how you're supposed to do it. If it doesn't come with a lot of how-to advice and a holding-the-first-time-DM's-hand starter adventure, I'll be disappointed.
Not surprised, mind you, just disappointed. After all, an RPG loss-leader should leave everyone hungry for more, and the best way to do that is to get them to roll up characters and play them. A solo-adventure followed by a beginner-DM-friendly adventure that's also really cool would seem the obvious ways to go.
But that's just me off the top of my head. Coming up with ideas like this isn't my 9-to-5, nor do I have access to WotC's playtester feedback and marketing research. They ought to be brainstorming on this question like mad. Or, rather, they should have been doing that when they started the Basic D&D project. So far, they haven't said anything that leads me to believe that this will be a stand-out, knock-our-socks-off product. But then, we're only just now hearing about it, so who knows what else they may have up their sleeves?