Yesterday, Apple not only released its OS X Mavericks operating system, it also announced that it would be free. That's great! For you, for Apple, and for the future of computing.
Releasing Mavericks for free seems like a simple idea. And in theory, it is. But in practice, the logistics are a bit more complex. Not only have previous versions of OS X actually made Apple money, which Apple is now passing up, but offering up big files for download costs Apple money. Especially when everyone and their brother (or in this case, millions of existing Mac owners) is pulling down an update. Mavericks isn't just free for you, it's expensive for Apple.
But don't you worry about Cupertino. They're still coming out ahead.
Why it's good for you
For starters it's free. Duh? But that helps more than just your wallet. The real benefit is that it's way more likely now that everyone else will have Mavericks too.
To see the benefit of getting all devices in an ecosystem on the same page, you don't need to look much further than Apple itself. Unless you really go out of your way to run away from updates, your iPhone is running the same OS as everyone else. Ditto the iPad. And unity is a large part of what makes the iOS App Store second to none.
Likewise, the Mavericks update should make developing for Macs a whole lot easier. Devs will now be able to reasonably assume that everyone is running the same operating system. Granted there's different hardware, but not much of it. So instead of retooling and optimising for different versions of OS X, developers can just develop for OS X, period. That means more, better apps for you, and more websites and services taking advantage of new features like smart notifications. You couldn't ask for a better situation.
Speaking of apps, there are the new (also free!) versions of iLife and iWork to look forward to, complete with features like new interfaces and cloud syncing. And again, it's great for you to have them, but doubly great to know everyone else does as well. It makes collaboration in iWork almost as natural of a go-to as Google Docs. Just like iMessage benefits from more of your friends being on iOS, iWork and iLife will by more people being on Mavericks.
And that little detail can suddenly make a MacBook so much more useful, even if it's (up to) five years old. Suddenly there's an even playing field that everyone gets to be on, for free. Your Mac will play nice with your iPhone will play nice with your iPad and you don't even have to think about it. That's a fantastic reason to buy into Apple right there. And if you already had, what you've got is now even better.
Why it's good for Apple
Yeah Mavericks is great for you, but it's even greater for Apple. Yes, they're losing a little of revenue up front. But this is about the long game.
Apple has always been a devoted soldier in the holy war against fragmentation. And with this one move, it can easily suck up the (Snow Leopard and up) world of Mac users, drop them in the future, and deal with them as a unified block. You've got your iOS users and your OS X users. Simple as that.
And with OSX users cordoned off into one space, it's extra easy for Apple to try to get you in for life. iLife. The new, compelling cloud features in iLife and iWork (which all OSX users who are picking up new hardware will have!) are a great way to get you really wrapped up in MacWorld and stay there for ever and ever and ever. And every person who winds up storing just a little more of their iLife in the iCloud just because Mavericks is free is another customer who's more faithful than ever.
Besides, there are few things that can generate marketing good will like "free".
That's not sinister or anything, it's just Apple's latest push on a core ideal: a great, consistent world for its users to live in. A world that's Apples to Apples. And inside that world, everybody wins.
Why it was inevitable
The end of Mac is coming, and this update is a heavy nod to that near-future. Mavericks in and of itself doesn't mean that iOS and OS X are definitely on a path to converge or that the merge is imminent. But it will happen eventually, and when it does, OS X updates (or whatever it's called at that point) will have to go free. You can't just start charging to upgrade an iPad.
So did Apple just kill the paid OS update forever, for real? It's a coup de grâce if anything; the paid OS update has been dying for years. Even now, when the hard evidence to suggest that a OSX/iOS convergence is in the works, we're already seeing this move towards mobile, where the baseline price there is already "free." And with the cross-platform hooks in iLife and iWork, the cables that will contract to pull the two operating systems closer together until the eventually merge are already in place.
You can actually see Microsoft running into the implications of this already. Windows 8.1 already sort of walks a line between incremental OS update and Service Pack, and it's free for (Windows 8 users). But if you think ahead a little further, Windows 9 will be a weird thing to price. Asking folks for money to upgrade their desktops is fair, sure. But can you imagine Microsoft having the gall to charge for upgrading to Windows 9 RT (if it even ever exists) on a Surface 2? It seems absurd.
And it looks like Apple is headed down a similar road, except it's making its changes ahead of time. By the time iOS and OSX come together, upgrade cycles and payment schemes aren't going to be something you have to think about any more. There will just be a suite of devices, some big, some small, some with keyboards, some without, and they'll all work together, play together, and upgrade together. For free.
It's a small sacrifice to make; Apple makes its money off of beautiful, high-margin hardware, end of story. That's why the iPhone 5S is (probably) outselling the iPhone 5C. It's why an underspecced, over-priced, but still beautiful little tablet managed to make it into millions of hands. It's why the new retina iPad mini is $479 versus its cheaper (and mostly comparable) contemporaries. And why it will sell like hotcakes regardless.
Apple doesn't need you to buy software software. That's not its bag. And if giving up that income means that virtually every MacBook out there becomes more valuable — now and going forward — that's a trade-off it'll make over and over. And everybody wins.