9 out of 10 Macs are eligible for free Mavericks upgrade

Apple has several reasons for making Mavericks free to most customers

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Apple ditched the PowerPC processor in early 2006 when it shifted to the industry-standard Intel. Snow Leopard is the newest OS X that can use Rosetta, the translation utility that allows PowerPC software to run on Intel Macs. A year ago, when Computerworld published a story about Snow Leopard's resistance to retirement, users who planned to stick with the edition because of the PowerPC issue came out of the woodwork.

"I would love to have some of the new enhancements in Mountain Lion, but I have lots of software that I still use, and want to continue to use, that is PowerPC only," reader James Frederick said in a November 2012 email. "That will all die if I 'upgrade.' Because of this, I will not do so."

Mavericks' zero price may also get Apple out of a different jam.

Because of Snow Leopard users' stubbornness, as well as its faster release cadence, Apple has supported OS X 10.6 -- Snow Leopard's numerical designation -- much longer than earlier editions. If a significant number of Snow Leopard users do upgrade to Mavericks, Apple could pull the security update plug.

Historically, Apple has patched only the OS X editions designated as "n" and "n-1" -- where "n" is the newest available -- and discarded support for "n-2" either before the launch of "n" or immediately after. Under that scheme, Apple should have stopped serving security updates to Snow Leopard ("n-2") in mid-2012, when Mountain Lion (designated "n") debuted.

Instead, the company continued to patch Snow Leopard; the latest security update shipped six weeks ago.

Apple may have now called it quits on Snow Leopard security updates: Although it cited 53 security vulnerabilities patched in Mavericks, it has not issued a corresponding update for Snow Leopard (or for Lion or Mountain Lion).

It's conceivable that Apple will simply stop patching all versions of OS X prior to Mavericks, dispensing with its unwritten "n" and "n-1" support policy. If pressed, it could justify that decision by pointing to Mavericks and urge customers to upgrade to what would, in essence, be the only supported edition.

With those things in mind, it makes even more sense that Apple made Mavericks free. Internally, it likely argued that the move would not only be good public relations -- as the media coverage attests -- and indirectly contribute to more Mac sales, as analysts believed, but also would focus third-party developers and free its own engineers from pre-Mavericks support responsibilities.

"Free is good," said Craig Federighi, who leads software engineering at Apple, as he announced on Tuesday that Mavericks would come without a sticker price.

Good for Apple, anyway.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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