Apple Mountain Lion OS stalks to launch -- free upgrade?

By Jonny Evans

Flicking through the dial of Apple [AAPL] rumor radio and you'd be forgiven for thinking iPhone 5 is the only channel that counts, but there's life in the Mac yet, as the company heads toward the potential June introduction of its next big cat, Mountain Lion.

[ABOVE: Looks pretty cute, huh? Don't forget, this predator can run 35 mph and leap over 30 feet. Is this the king of the OS mountain?]

Rawr (that's a growling sound)

Released to developers in February this year, recent weeks have seen rapidly-paced releases of new point upgrades to OS X, driving anticipation of an imminent release. That Apple is recruiting new AppleCare support staff to man the OS X support lines also hints the company's OS cat's getting ready to roar.

AppleInsider:

"The source went on to say that Mountain Lion may be just a few weeks from launch as internal training recently commenced regarding certain facets of the operating system. Apple usually restricts the operating window of support staff training to a minimum before large product release presumably to avoid leaks."

It's also worth noting the company shipped OS X Lion 10.7.4 yesterday, a stability release which addresses a series of operating system flaws. Clearly OS development is on the fast track right now.

Get ready for WWDC

Developer event, WWDC 2012, is only a few weeks away, and while no one beyond the religiously hopeful and optimistic now expect the company to show its new iPhone at that show, Apple's sure to be planning something to surprise and delight its gathering of developers, all of whom paid top dollar to be at the show. The introduction of iOS 6 (preview), new Ivy Bridge Macs and Mountain Lion now seem set for top billing.

An uncharacteristic accident recently saw Apple reveal new banner notifications on its iCloud.com website, a feature which emulates just one of the new things in the forthcoming OS.

Apple has shipped three updates to the original developer release so far. As my colleague, Gregg Keizer notes, these are appearing faster than similar updates to Lion shipped, suggesting development is on the fast track. That's no great surprise when you consider Apple has previously promised to upgrade its computer OS each year.

Keizer:

"If Apple keeps to the established pace and seeds one more preview to developers -- Lion offered four last year, then a so-called "gold master" build before hitting the Mac App Store -- Mountain Lion would go on sale June 25, with the gold master ready June 6."

If we skip the diary dates, it also make sense for Apple to widen its developer pre-release seeding by making a stable version of the OS available at its show, followed up by public release a few weeks later.

Free the lions

Will Mountain Lion be a free upgrade? There's some signs this is possible. The company recently began offering Mobile Me users free Snow Leopard upgrades in order to promote the move to iCloud.

Also interesting, as previously reported, the company recently began accounting for a portion of Mac sales revenues on a subscription basis, as it does with some iPhone revenue. iOS upgrades are free updates, paid for by that portion of revenue Apple files on this basis.

Why would Apple move to free OS upgrades? My thoughts:

-- Partially to ensure rapid take-up of new operating system evolutions as it moves to make iCloud a central part of its multi-device computing experiences.
-- Partially to put the kabosh down against Microsoft, which will ship its fee-based Windows 8 upgrade later this year.
-- And partially to promote rapid Mac replacement -- after all, in most cases, Apple ends OS support after two iterations, in order to run a secure system and to benefit from new system features, Mac users are therefore 'encouraged' to upgrade their Macs every two to three years.


(Personally, I'd prefer better legacy system support, but getting that will require more than my single voice to achieve. It disappoints me that so many in the Apple press aren't actively agitating for a three-to-five year support window, particularly as regards security updates. I'd certainly support such a campaign, particularly in a difficult economic environment in which even pro users are under pressure to get the most they can out of their computer investments.)

That Apple has begun accounting for a portion of Mac sales as subscription-type revenue is a strong indicator of future movement to introduce new features within its systems.

In truth, this could simply reflect future plans for iCloud, but I like to think it suggests a future move to free OS upgrades -- and if this doesn't happen this year, I'd hazard a guess this could be on Apple's road map for 2013.

After all, just how much does the world's most valuable company need the comparatively paltry $200 million it can expect to realize from c.10 million sales of its OS? Moving to a free upgrade model would enable Apple to deploy major OS improvements to a wide audience extremely quickly, and with the goal clearly being that of a device-agnostic computing experience supported by iCloud, this might be exactly the way to ensure the level of market take-up an operating system needs to achieve that goal.

WWDC opens its doors June 11. We'll be watching to see if that's when the Mountain Lion OS lopes into the limelight. Will you download it? What do you expect from it? Let us all know in comments below.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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