Apple on Tuesday launched OS X 10.9, aka Mavericks, as a free upgrade for most Mac owners, including those with machines up to six years old.
"Today, we're going to revolutionize pricing," said Craig Federighi, who leads software engineering at Apple, near the start of an 80-minute event that also introduced refreshed iPad tablets.
"Today, spending hundreds of dollars to get the most out of your computer are gone," Federighi said while a slide behind him showed the packaging for Microsoft's Windows 8 Pro, with its $199 retail price prominent. "Today, we announce a new era for the Mac. Because today we're announcing that Mavericks is free. Free is good."
Mac users running last year's Mountain Lion, 2011's Lion and even 2009's Snow Leopard were able to download Mavericks from the Mac App Store starting yesterday. The no-older-than-Snow-Leopard limitation was due to the App Store, the only distribution channel for Mavericks; versions of OS X that preceded Snow Leopard cannot access the e-market.
While Federighi spent time Tuesday at Apple's iPad launch event going over some of the OS's new features, the real news was Apple's zero-dollar price.
"This won't be a huge deal to Apple, but it will be for customers" said Carolina Milanesi of Gartner in a Tuesday interview, referring to the revenue Apple has left on the table by not charging for Mavericks.
She also pointed out that Apple's move had not come out of left field, but that the firm had been edging toward it for years. In 2011, Apple slashed the price of Snow Leopard, or OS X 10.6, to $29; earlier upgrades had cost $129. The company charged $30 for Lion two years later, then in 2012 cut that price by a third to $20 for Mountain Lion.
Others joined Milanesi in arguing that a free Mavericks -- and future free upgrades, since it would be difficult for Apple to later charge for what had been free of charge -- simply showed Cupertino's focus on selling hardware above all else.
"Mavericks will be a free upgrade because it is about the hardware and getting users engaged with it," Milanesi tweeted during the event.
"It's an all-included strategy," concurred Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "Apple's saying, 'Why should we hit you up for another $20? The OS is a complement to the device.' For the extra you pay for a Mac, you're getting end-to-end service, including upgrades."
Thomas Husson of Forrester Research also saw the free Mavericks, and Apple's concurrent announcement that it will give its OS X iWork apps to all new Mac buyers, as buttressing the hardware-first strategy.
"What differentiates Apple in the space is not necessarily hardware innovation, but the value and benefit to consumers of the entire ecosystem," said Husson. "Software and services are ways to differentiate. They're the glue that creates customer loyalty."
Competitors, said Husson, are only now starting to think along similar lines. He cited Samsung, Apple's biggest smartphone rival, which he said relies strictly on its hardware to sell, well, the hardware. "One [Apple] has made the shift, but for the other [Samsung], it's not part of the company's DNA. They're really very different approaches."
Some observers wondered if Mavericks' free deal was more than a jab at rival Microsoft, a move that could actually pose some kind of threat to Windows. But analysts like Gottheil downplayed the talk. "I don't think so," he said when asked. "I don't see Apple gaining significant increases in market share [from this], not like it did several years ago."
And while Microsoft does charge for Windows upgrades, those from Windows 7, say, to Windows 8, it not only mimicked Apple's faster release tempo this year, but beat Apple to free with Windows 8.1, a major update that launched last week, a year after Windows 8. (The stretch between Mountain Lion and Mavericks was longer at 15 months.)
OS X Mavericks tips the virtual scale at 5.3GB -- an enormous download for customers with slower or aggressively-metered Internet connections -- and can be downloaded by choosing "Software Update" from the Apple menu at the far left of a Mac's menu bar.
Apple has published a list of the Macs compatible with Mavericks. It includes iMacs as old as mid-2007, MacBook Pro notebooks from late 2007 on, and MacBook Air ultra-light laptops from late 2008 going forward.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.