As Apple vice president Craig Federighi declared OS X Mavericks would be a free upgrade, an image of a boxed copy of Windows 8 Pro flashed on the screen behind him, next to a $199 price tag. "Today we're going to revolutionize pricing," Federighi said.
Hold on there a second, Craig. While the low, low cost of $0 for Mavericks is certainly a welcome change from the (entirely reasonable) cost of past OS X upgrades, it's not quite as revolutionary as Apple claims.
Mobile operating systems have been free for years, and long before Apple's Tuesday announcement, Microsoft made Windows 8.1 a free upgrade for Windows 8 users. But there's more to Apple's strategy than price alone: Mavericks could very well offer a glimpse into the future of Windows, now that Microsoft has reimagined itself as a device and services company.
No more stragglers
OS X Mavericks is merely evolutionary if you consider its subtle changes and tweaks compared to OS X Mountain Lion, the last version of Apple's operating system. What's revolutionary is Apple's letting everyone from 2009's OS X Snow Leopard on up make the upgrade without any financial burden whatsoever.
The move to free isn't only awesome, it makes a lot of sense. Apple's focus is on selling hardware and acting as a gatekeeper to its software stores. Its operating systems are there to usher customers into Apple's ecosystem. iTunes was estimated to account for more than $4 billion in revenue last quarter alone.
With that in mind, most Mac users who would pay to upgrade to OS X Lion and Mountain Lion have already done so by this point.
Shifting to a free upgrade ensures that stragglers who wouldn't have paid for OS X Mavericks anyway will be up-to-date software-wise. That lets developers create apps targeting Mavericks' capabilities, rather than limiting features for the sake of backward compatibility. Meanwhile, the allure of free OS upgrades makes Mac hardware more appealing to shoppers.
Devices, services, and paying for an OS
Hey! Didn't Microsoft recently refocus itself as a device and services company? It did indeed.
As an Apple-esque device and services company, Microsoft has more incentive to give away OS upgrades gratis and use them as a carrot, rather than a stick. (You know, like it did just last week with Windows 8.1's release.) Rather than concentrating on OS sales alone, Ballmer and co. want you to buy Windows Store apps, or subscriptions to SkyDrive and Xbox Live and Xbox Music Pass and Office 365, then use those various services across a wide range of Microsoft devices... or devices made by Microsoft partners.
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