Are Paid Operating Systems a Thing of the Past?



Recently, Apple announced that they would be offering their latest operating system upgrade, 10.9 Mavericks, for free. This comes on the heels of Microsoft charging $120 for Windows 8 (with the Pro version costing as much as $200). Though it seemingly came as a surprise to many, this is in fact the end result of a trend which has been going on for some time. Though they formerly charged $129 for standalone OS purchases, Apple has lowered that price significantly in recent years. The Mac OS Snow Leopard sold for only $29, Mountain Lion for ten dollars less. Compared to those prices, $0 isn’t that big of a leap. However, Apple’s latest move still raises a number of questions, ones which are decidedly worth answering:

  • Why is Apple Doing This? There are a number of contributing factors here. For one thing, the fact remains that most computer users simply stick with the OS they are given. Most people never upgrade theirs, only experiencing a new OS when they purchase a more up to date computer. Apple has been lowering their prices to make upgrading seem more appealing, but if you’re going to lower your prices to $19 why not sweeten the deal and just make the move free? The idea here is that if more people will upgrade their OS if it is priced very reasonably than even more will upgrade if that OS is completely free. That’s certainly a reasonable assumption to make.
  • Did Apple Mess Up? One could look at this situation and reach the conclusion that Mavericks is free because Apple simply played the game wrong. By giving away OS updates on mobile platforms like iPhones and iPads for free, Apple likely made their computers less appealing to some buyers, and since computers are the most expensive devices they sell doing that wouldn’t exactly be smart. One could also argue that by constantly lowering the prices of their operating systems Apple entered into a spiral from which it could not escape, making a free OS (or one that was essentially free) really the only possible outcome. I personally feel there might be some validity in these beliefs, but the fact remains that assuming that Apple is only doing this because they backed themselves into a corner simply is not giving the company enough credit. I’ll explain:
  • Is This a Good Idea? Yes, it is, for a number of reasons, mainly because it makes them look really good in the eyes of consumers. Everybody loves getting something for free, so giving away Mavericks is obviously great for morale. It’ll make Apple seem like a friendlier company, one who keeps the best interests of the consumer in mind even at the risk of personal sacrifice. This really is the best PR move Apple could have made at this juncture.
  • Can Apple make money this way? Once again, yes they can. They can make a lot of it. The promise of getting future OS updates for free will make Mac products more appealing for potential buyers. Therefore, though they’ll be giving up one potential means of income generation they’ll likely be selling more of their base product so it doesn’t really matter in the long run. Plus, giving Mavericks away means that more people will use it, and when you’re constantly creating new apps (a huge source of revenue for Apple) for a new OS you’re only limiting your potential profit margins by not guaranteeing that as many of your users have that new OS as possible.
  • Is the Mavericks OS upgrade really free? In a sense. There is absolutely no cost for the software itself. However, the cost of future OS development is still factored into the purchase price of every item that Apple sells, so while you’re not going to be paying for the OS itself you will be paying somewhat for the work that goes into creating it. The main issue here is that, like all of Apple’s previous operating systems, Mavericks will only run on Apple devices. This is a distinct advantage that Apple has over Microsoft. While Windows can be installed on a wide range of PCs, some expensive and some cheap, Apple operating systems can only be installed on Apple computers. So is Mavericks really free (in the same sense that, say, Linux is free) if you have to pay $1000 or more just to have access to it? No, not really. Sure, if you have an older Mac you might be able to simply upgrade your machine, but that’s only if you have a model made during or after 2009. If your computer wasn’t running Snow Leopard when you bought it then you’re out of luck.
  • How will Microsoft respond? They already have, to some extent anyway. Though Windows 8 did (and still does, for that matter) retail for $120, Microsoft recently released an updated version, Windows 8.1, for free. In fact, they did so during the same week that Apple announced the price of Mavericks. What does this move say about Microsoft’s future? Well, the release of Mavericks has made Apple look great in the eyes of consumers. For any company to charge for an OS now would make them seem less appealing, even archaic. Currently, Microsoft makes a good deal of money off their software, charging PC makers and consumers for the right to use Windows 8, but they have to realize the tide is turning. Microsoft has been very focused on their software for decades and it’s served them well, but if they want to survive after Apple’s latest move they’ll need to become more like their competitor, becoming focused not as much on software and much more on hardware. They’ve already begun doing this to some extent. Microsoft recently bought Nokia, granting them a platform through which they can produce their own smartphones in-house, and they’ve already begun producing their own tablets. That’s progress in the right direction, but it’s not enough. Microsoft needs to put that kind of focus into the personal computer market as well, and their recent gifting of 8.1 indicates that they understand that changes must be made. Let’s see if they can make them in time.
  • Is Apple’s plan working so far? Well, three times more users have downloaded Mavericks than their previous OS update Mountain Lion. So yes, adoption appears to be going very, very well.