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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. 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.