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Apple's $900 million moment

Gregg Keizer | Oct. 30, 2013
Will defer almost a billion dollars more in the fourth quarter to cover free OS X upgrades and iWork give-away

Follow-up filings with the SEC said that starting in July 2011, Apple deferred "all revenue from the sale of upgrades to the Mac OS and Mac versions of iLife," a move that at the time seemed to hint at a free upgrade to 2012's OS X Mountain Lion.

The $900 million additional deferred in the fourth quarter will return to Apple's ledger eventually. According to Oppenheimer, the iOS revenue will be reported in installments over a two-year period; deferred Mac revenue will be restored over a four-year stretch.

Apple's $900 million may sound like pocket change to a company with nearly $150 billion in the bank, but the free software move affected the firm's projected margin for the December quarter by one to two percentage points.

Microsoft was faced with a similar decision earlier this year when it announced that it would offer Windows 8.1 to customers already running Windows 8. But Microsoft declined to defer Windows revenue, and in documents submitted to the SEC, explained that it considered Windows 8.1 an "update" rather than an "upgrade," and thus was free to give it away for, well, free.

While the difference may have been lost on customers, it was crucial for Microsoft: Calling Windows 8.1 an "upgrade" would have required it to either charge for the software or retroactively adjust Windows revenue to account for the deferral, lowering that division's earnings over several previous quarters.

Some analysts believe that Apple gave away OS X upgrades and its iWork software as a form of psychological warfare. The theory was that by offering free upgrades and productivity applications, Apple makes Microsoft's business model look "odd and strange and expensive" in the words of Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy.

Today, Van Baker of Gartner had another idea.

"I think there were two reasons why Apple did this," said Baker. "First, it was a shot at Microsoft, kind of like Apple saying, 'Come on, you guys, if you're going to do Office for iPad, do it.' Second, Apple's saying, 'If you're not, we're going to move forward and compete with you.'"

Mac owners with eligible systems can download OS X Mavericks from the Mac App Store.

 

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