The ROI of free OS updates: Who wins, Apple or Microsoft?

Mavericks, Windows 8.1 hastened adoption, but what do the numbers really say?

By ripping the price sticker from their latest operating systems, Microsoft and Apple have accelerated the adoption pace of their newest OSes, according to data released Saturday by analytics company Net Applications.

But Microsoft is not Apple, nor Apple, Microsoft, and so it should not be a surprise that their uptake stories reached different endings.

Last month, OS X 10.9, aka Mavericks, accounted for 68% of all Macs running it and its precursor, Mountain Lion, an increase of 5 percentage points from December, said California-based Net Applications. Mavericks passed Mountain Lion by the end of the former's first full month in the Mac App Store.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's Windows 8.1, which launched five days before Mavericks, captured 37% of the total combined user share of it and its predecessor, Windows 8, by the end of January, up from 34% the month before. Even so, Windows 8.1's user share trailed Windows 8's by a wide margin.

The rapid user share increases in both Mavericks and Windows 8.1 set records for Apple and Microsoft, easily breaking earlier marks for adoption. For example, Mavericks reached the 40% bar three months after its launch, three times faster than Mountain Lion. Free boosted Windows 8.1's uptake even more when compared to the not-free Windows 8. The former reached 37% three months after its launch, seven times more than the latter's 5% of the combined Windows 8-Windows 7 share at the same point in the 2012 release cycle of Windows 8.

Although the Mavericks-Windows 8.1 comparison is not perfect, they share several characteristics: Each shipped about a year after its forerunner, each was much more evolutionary than revolutionary, and maybe most important, each was free.

'Free is good'

Both Microsoft and Apple trumpeted the fact that they were giving away the newest operating system, a move that by Net Applications' statistics has paid off.

"Windows 8.1 will be delivered as a free update to Windows 8 and to Windows RT. Customers today who have Windows 8 or who plan to buy a device can seamlessly get the advantages of Windows 8.1," Tami Reller, then the co-chief of the Windows division, said in May 2013. After last summer's corporate reorganization, Reller is now Microsoft's top marketing executive.

Apple's Craig Federighi, who leads software development at the Cupertino, Calif. company, was more enthusiastic when in October he said, "Today, spending hundreds of dollars to get the most out of your computer are gone. Today, we're announcing that Mavericks is free. Free is good."

Free means faster OS adoption
OS X Mavericks converted nearly twice as much of its predecessor's user base than did Windows 8.1 in the first three months after the updates were given away. (Data: Net Applications.)
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