Analyst: Free Mountain Lion upgrade would be 'brilliant' Apple move

Changes in how Apple defers Mac sales revenue may hint at free deal, at least for users running Lion

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An upgrade to Mountain Lion might fit the definition of the first, while iCloud enhancements would be a natural for the second.

Using Apple's sales figures for the fourth quarter of 2011 -- approximately 5.2 million Macs sold -- the company would have set aside nearly $114.4 million.

Follow-up 10-Q filings in October 2011 and January 2012 cited the same language, but added that starting in July 2011, Apple would also defer "all revenue from the sale of upgrades to the Mac OS and Mac versions of iLife," and account for the money on its balance sheet over a 36-month period.

The reason for that deferral, Apple again said, was to "include when-and-if-available upgrade rights" for the software.

Such language would seem to signal that Apple could offer a free upgrade to Mountain Lion, at least to those users who either own a Mac equipped with Lion, or have upgraded an older machine to the operating system.

Apple could deliver a free upgrade via the Mac App Store, which has been the primary distribution method for OS X Lion, and will be the sole channel through which it offers or sells Mountain Lion.

Although Gottheil admitted that the SEC filings made free upgrades "a possibility," he gave it long odds, noting that accounting practices encourage companies to defer revenue for software maintenance and upgrades even if they don't call it out explicitly in their 10-Q submissions, as did Apple.

Gottheil also did a quick estimate of what revenue Apple would take off the table by providing users a free upgrade to Mountain Lion.

"Assuming a 20% penetration of the upgrade, it would amount to $180 million to $200 million," Gottheil said. "That's not chump change, but it's also not something that Apple desperately needs."

The business case for a free upgrade are stronger clues to Apple's move than the SEC filings, Gottheil argued, but he also said the Cupertino, Calif. company may have one other reason. "It would be an 'in your eye, Microsoft' kind of move," he said, referring to the likely release of Windows 8 later this year, and Microsoft's inability as a seller of software, not hardware, to give away its wares.

Apple issued a developer preview of Mountain Lion two weeks ago, and at the time said the upgrade would ship this summer. The company has not disclosed the upgrade's price and exact date of availability; it will probably disclose those details at or after its annual developers conference in June.

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

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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