OS X Mavericks vs. Windows 8.1: Which is really free?

Apple's giving away OS X Mavericks for free has stirred the Mac vs. Windows kettle up once again

Last week's post on how operating systems want to be free sparked a very interesting discussion and apparently caused InfoWorld's J. Peter Bruzzese to agree (somewhat) in his column, "There's no free lunch, but there could be a 'free' Windows." One of Peter's main points was that Apple giving away OS X Mavericks for free was analogous to Microsoft "giving away" the Windows 8.1 upgrade. He followed up with the claim that by also giving away iWork with iOS and Mac OS X, Apple was showing some desperation, given that nobody wants or uses iWork. In addition, he made hay about the $2,999 price tag for the new Mac Pro, and he concluded by saying that Windows would only be "free" when offered as part of a subscription.

Whether or not Microsoft ever offers Windows for free, I think I need to clarify a few things. I'm not heavily invested in either side of this debate, and I truly could not care less about the OS wars, but facts are facts.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks | Operating systems want to be free | For quick, smart takes on the news you'll be talking about, check out the InfoWorld TechBrief -- subscribe today. ]

First off, offering OS X Mavericks for free is not the same as a free Windows 8.1 upgrade. It would be the same if Microsoft offered Windows 8 as a free upgrade from Windows 7, which is clearly not the case. Of course, the way that Windows 8 adoption is going, Microsoft may have to resort to a giveaway to get more people on board. Sticking a start menu icon in Windows 8.1 that merely opens to Metro isn't going to impress most of us.

Upgrades to point releases have long been complimentary for for-cost operating systems, but moving to full releases has usually been attached to a dollar figure. This was true for just about every monetized OS out there. Now, it's a different ballgame. The upgrade from Mac OS X 10.8 to Mac OS X 10.9 is free; the upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8 is not.

As far as iWork goes, I must agree to a point. I don't think it was truly desperation, but an effort to gain mind share about these applications. The iWork suite is more than capable of providing for all the word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation needs of the vast majority of Mac owners. However, those business users who have mind-melded to Excel won't be using Numbers anytime soon.

Most of us can float between different word processors and even presentation software relatively easily, but spreadsheets are a different beast. I've seen things done in Excel that violate the laws of physics and number theory, and usually, those responsible for creating and maintaining those "spreadsheets" would rather jump into a lava pit than try to replicate their abomination in anything else. Frankly, the lava pit would be the better end of the bargain. But I digress.

For balancing a checkbook or doing simple sales data analysis, writing a letter, or even preparing a business presentation, iWork will, well, work. If it shows up for free on every Apple device, it will get used more often, and possibly even make a dent in Microsoft's Office for Mac sales. I don't expect it to make a dent in Office for Windows sales, other than those who are moving from Windows to Mac anyway.

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