The Mavericks Report: Make it Free!

July 10th, 2013

Long long ago, you could actually get a brand new version of the Mac OS free. Until the early 1990s, you could go to your favorite Mac dealer, give them a set of floppies, and (assuming they wanted to be helpful) you’d have the requisite files copied over in short order; some dealers might add a service fee, but most didn’t. If you couldn’t find a dealer who wanted to cooperate, and there were some, you might get a copy from a local Mac user group — at least when there were lots of groups of this sort — or even from one of those online services, such as AOL and CompuServe. However, since those online services charged you by the hour in the old days, and you got online with a slow dialup connection, free didn’t mean free when it came to your monthly bill for usage.

Of course, there nothing stopped a friend from making copies for you.

Yes there was actually a retail paid version of Mac OS. It came complete with a thick set of manuals. But why bother when you could get the OS itself without charge?

Well, Apple changed all that beginning with System 7.1. Mac users protested, but Apple had its way. Only maintenance updates would be free. The full upgrade was only available as a retail product, and that continues to the present day with OS X Mountain Lion.

When OS X first arrived in 2001, Apple increased the price from $99 to $129. That changed in 2011 with the release of Lion, where Apple opted to make the upgrade available online for $29.99. OS 10.8 Mountain Lion arrived a year later at $19.99. So was the handwriting on the wall.

Now any time Apple makes a statement about a future product release, those who watch the company’s activities will parse every word, every pithy phrase, in search of hidden meanings. You don’t necessarily see that behavior with Dell or HP, or even Lenovo, but this is Apple, a company that is judged by a different set of rules.

So when demonstrating OS X Mavericks at this year’s WWDC, Apple announced that it would be available for download this fall. Not that it would go on sale, but would be available for download. It may, in the end, be a distinction without a difference, but maybe change is afoot.

I suppose Apple could offer Mavericks for $19.99, same as Mountain Lion. As operating system upgrades go, it would be worth the money, and Apple is surely entitled to be paid for their development efforts.

But let’s move on.

According to published reports about the three Mavericks developer releases, it appears they work on the same Macs as OS X Mountain Lion, going as far back as the 2007 iMac. That’s six years, which is a pretty long time in the Mac and PC universes. Clearly Apple wants to have as many Mac users as possible upgrade to Mavericks when it arrives, and if that means nearly every Mac that can run Mountain Lion, even better.

Having a simple upgrade process certainly helps, and one hopes that there won’t be too many app incompatibilities when Mavericks arrives. All things being equal, then, why not just make the upgrade free? If any Mac user with compatible hardware can get a copy simply by clicking a Download link, no money spent, it would seem that the upgrade percentage will be extremely high. Consider the over 90% adoption rate of iOS 6, and the earliest iPhones and iPads aren’t even compatible.

True, there are Mac users who still won’t migrate to Mavericks, even with compatible hardware. There are millions who still use Snow Leopard four years after its initial release. One key reason is PowerPC support, courtesy of Rosetta. For whatever reason, and the decision can be debated over and over again, Apple pulled Rosetta from OS X, meaning that PowerPC software won’t run. There is no third party alternative, and it doesn’t seem that anyone will ever devise a third party solution that I know about. So this is one line of demarcation, as is the fact that a fair number of Macs running 10.6 can’t upgrade to later versions of OS X.

Sure, it doesn’t mean that someone can’t set up two partitions on the older Mac, with Mavericks on one, Snow Leopard on the other, when it comes time to use a PowerPC app. This may be a more awkward solution, aside from keeping a second Mac at hand for such occasions. But it does mean that there will be a decent number of Mac users who won’t consider upgrading to a later version of OS X until they’re forced to do so as the result of buying a new Mac.

The long and short of it is this: Apple would be better off making Mavericks free. I have little sympathy for the loss of a little income, and it will go a long way towards quickly expanding the user base. If app developers need to work hard to add Mavericks support, this step will encourage them to do it as soon as possible. I don’t know if Apple is planning this move, but free simply makes sense.

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7 Responses to “The Mavericks Report: Make it Free!”

  1. DaveD says:

    Yes, I agree. Not only for consolidation to a higher Mac user base of Mavericks, the users get a better OS performance and a very nice thank you from Apple.

  2. Articles you should read (July 10) …. says:

    […] “The Mavericks Report: Make it Free!: Long long ago, you could actually get a brand new version of the Mac OS free. Until the early 1990s, you could go to your favorite Mac dealer, give them a set of floppies, and (assuming they wanted to be helpful) you’d have the requisite files copied over in short order; some dealers might add a service fee, but most didn’t.” — “The Tech Night Owl” ( […]

  3. Erick says:

    Correction: it was Snow Leopard in 2009 that started the low-pricing trend for OS X. In fact, Lion cost $0.99 more than Snow Leopard’s $29.00 (and much more for actual installation media), though this was offset by more generous licensing terms. Also, OS X 10.0->10.1 was a free upgrade (some would say it was an admission that 10.0 needed the improvements).

    Also, I think it’s worth mentioning iOS as an indicator of Apple’s desire to move towards free upgrades. Originally, major iOS revisions cost $19.99 for iPod touch users, but free for iPhone users. The discrepancy was largely due to accounting technicalities, but eventually these were overcome and now all iOS updates are free. This benefits developers and helps cement the App Store’s lead.

    However, this lead doesn’t exist in Mac land so perhaps it is a less urgent priority. Another differentiating factor may be the extent to which iOS is deeply tied to the hardware. There are plenty of Hackintoshes out there, but I haven’t heard of a single non-Apple device capable of running iOS.

  4. AdamC says:

    It is possible to boot up from an external USB HD with any OS.

    Yes two OSs in one Mac.

  5. SteveP says:

    “It just makes sense”?
    NO, it doesn’t.
    It’s just another rationalization.

    I truly hope they don’t follow your ‘advice’.

    I won’t turn this into a rant against the “make everything free” mentality. I’ll just stop and say “Enough!”

    • @SteveP, There is no such argument. There are legitimate reasons, spelled out in the article, for Apple to make Mavericks free. You are free to provide your own specifics, but you’d clearly rather just put labels on something. You have provided no rationalization for your point of view (yes Apple is entitled to make a profit), and, no, this isn’t a discussion about making everything free.


  6. dfs says:

    There’s another argument for making the Apple OS free. One of the functions of the modern OS is to steer customers to Apple’s money-making enterprises, notably iCloud. And if Maverick contains an iBook reader for the Mac this trend will be pushed a step farther. So it’s in Apple’s interest to get as many people aboard the train as possible.

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