crowd at apple store At Apple’s keynote event, one surprise announcement caused a big round of applause: the announcement that the upgrade to the new version of OS X would be completely free of charge.

Unsurprisingly, Web forums and blog comment sections were soon alive with predictable Mac vs. PC debates.

With retail copies of Microsoft Windows 8 costing upwards of around $120, Apple’s announcement of a “free” operating system was a nasty blow to Microsoft, and the publicity the move has generated probably already marks the change as a success for Apple.

Apples and Oranges

The phrase “comparing apples and oranges” springs to mind when one tries to make a direct comparison of OS X and Windows pricing.

For a start, Apple’s operating system isn’t really a standalone product. Without technical trickery, it’s not apple and orangepossible to run OS X on non-Apple hardware. For this reason, the Windows devotees are quick to argue that free upgrades to OS X are not truly “free,” when the customer has already paid a price premium for Apple hardware.

Windows fans are also keen to suggest that OS X Mavericks is not a major operating system upgrade, and in fact more of a service pack – just like the recently launched Windows 8.1 (which was also free to existing Windows 8 users).

However, there is a good counter-argument for the Apple fans: OS X Mavericks is the ninth iteration of OS X (10.9), which dates back to 2001. This happens to be the year that Windows XP was released. Since then there has been Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8, all of which have been chargeable upgrades. Yes, Apple has also charged for upgrades in the meantime, but it has charged less, and intends not to charge in the future.

With this is mind, it’s pertinent to remember that Apple didn’t actually say that operating system upgrades would be free forever. There’s no certainty that once OS X becomes OS XI (or OS X 11 – nobody knows yet), Apple won’t again choose to charge for upgrades. But it does appear that they’ve now set a precedent, and don’t plan to return to charging for incremental upgrades.

So, even if Apple were to charge for “OS XI,” users would have little to complain about if they then got twelve years of free updates, especially when based on the previous period, there would be four expensive upgrades for Windows in the same timeframe.

What does it all mean?

The mechanics and fine details of Apple’s move are largely academic. It’s the message that’s been sent to the industry that’s most relevant here.

Apple are effectively saying that “Microsoft charge $120 or more, we charge nothing.” The media will pick up on this, and the fact they’re comparing apples and oranges is irrelevant.

This is against the backdrop of a PC user base who haven’t exactly taken to Windows 8 like ducks to water, so Apple’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. With the holiday season imminent, people now have a little more justification to buy a shiny iMac or Macbook Air, because they think that the extra investment will pay for itself in the long term.

Whether this change will result in an increased Apple market share in workstation based environments in businesses remains to be seen, but if Apple capture just a little more of the consumer market, they probably won’t care that much. They’ve also got the new Mac Pro to sell to creative types at $3000 a pop.

The techies can argue on the forums all they like, but it’s hard to argue that, right now, Microsoft are being cleverly out-maneuvered by their age-old rival.

Image courtesy skyme/Shutterstock.com

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