Apple has clearly determined that the cost of development and maintenance for iWork is a reasonable price to pay for sweetening the Mac offering by giving away these tools for free. The proof of that is in the pudding.
Now, as to the claim that OS X isn't really free because you have to buy a Mac to use it -- well, unless you're building a PC from scratch, you'll have to buy Windows when you buy a PC anyway. Sure, if you say that you need to buy a $2,999 computer just to run Mac OS X, it sounds ridiculous. But of course, you don't. You can buy a $599 Mac Mini or a $1,199 MacBook Pro. You could buy a used Mac and upgrade it for free. If you want to get freaky, build a Hackintosh. You obviously won't get support from Apple, but you can run OS X on the right PC hardware if you have the desire.
And can we please dispense with the ridiculous comparisons of Apple workstations to general-purpose PCs in terms of cost? Head over to HP or Dell and spec out a workstation-class system with the same specs as the new Mac Pro, such as an HP Z420. You won't be able to match it exactly because you'll have a hard time getting six Thunderbolt ports in the HP. Oh, and don't forget about adding the dual GPUs with 2GB GDDR5 VRAM each and the 12GB of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC RAM that come standard with the Mac Pro.
Even if you leave out the Thunderbolt ports and you match the CPU, RAM, video, and disk options as close as you can, you'll find that the same -- or lesser spec -- system at HP or Dell costs at least as much, and usually more, than the Mac Pro. A workstation is a workstation, and a desktop is a desktop. If you want to compare like systems, compare a standard HP desktop system to an iMac.
As far as Windows being "free" as a component of a software subscription, that might be workable in the corporate world, but I don't see it working reliably with respect to the general computing public. I think we're going to see Windows become a commodity to be included in the build cost of a PC for every vendor, not unlike the cost of an Ethernet controller, power supply, or hard drive. Sure, the cost of Windows is incorporated into the overall cost of a PC now, but in the future, upgrades for that version are going to have to be free, just as Apple has done with Mac OS X.
If you buy a new PC with Windows 8 on it, Windows 9 will need to be delivered free of charge. Windows 10? Same thing. To do this, the upgrade will have to be delivered over the wire -- nobody's expecting to get a DVD in the mail -- but the perpetual for-cost Windows upgrade days are numbered, if not already over, for the general user.
Businesses will continue to pay for site licenses or whatnot due to support concerns and other corporation-centric requirements, but for nonbusiness use, Microsoft will have to match Apple's move -- soon. After all, if we ignore build quality and an identical-spec PC costs within a few hundred dollars of a Mac, and the Mac brings free upgrades, an office suite, and iLife with the bundle, well, it's not hard to see which is the better deal.
This story, "OS X Mavericks vs. Windows 8.1: Which is really free?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.