Why free operating systems will encourage you to actually spend more


Apple’s decision to give away its operating system is a game-changer. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Lost in the hubbub of Apple’s unveiling of the new iPad Air last week was the company’s announcement that it would be giving away its new operating system, OS X Mavericks, for free. Apple thinks that by enabling you to upgrade your operating system for free, it will encourage you to upgrade to new laptops or desktops that take advantage of Mavericks’ latest functions. View it as a BOGO pricing strategy in reverse – you get one, you buy one.

But offering OS X Mavericks for free may be more than just a clever new pricing strategy for the tech sector. (Anyone  remember the way we all oohed and aahed over “freemium” a few years ago?) The Apple announcement may mark the start of a new way that we upgrade and buy products, especially when those hooked up to the Internet as part of the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things is one of those concepts that has fascinated innovators ever since it was proposed. It’s the concept that every product, once it’s hooked up to the Internet, becomes a potentially powerful computer in its own right. By some estimates, the Internet of Things could offer “incalculable” savings and efficiencies for society if the vision ever becomes fully realized. Just ask Cisco — the number of things connected to the Internet already exceeds the people on earth.

The classic Internet of Things example — now getting a bit worn around the edges — is of the home refrigerator that knows when it’s getting empty and then automatically generates a grocery list for you. Since the fridge is connected to the Internet, it could go one step further and decide which ingredients you’re missing for a certain recipe and add those as well.

So what does all this have to do with Mavericks and free operating systems?

Well, what if we start thinking about all of our products — not just our digital devices — as consisting of two distinct components: the exterior shell and the inner “brain” of the product that handles all of the thinking. Consider, for example, the emerging area of wearable tech, where designers are starting to embed climate-sensing technology that knows how hot or cold you are, and adjusts the performance of the outer material accordingly. If you take an Internet of Things perspective on this, your jacket could be thought of as running, say, a GORE-TEX operating system, while the exterior shell of the jacket is the equivalent of a digital device that you’re asked to upgrade on an annual basis. You don’t buy new winter jackets every year, you just upgrade your operating system.

Or, what about the automobile industry? We’re already starting to design open source automobiles running their own “flavors” of infotainment systems, so why not think of your car as running an automobile operating system? One of the interesting aspects of the new OS X Mavericks is how it may actually help your computer run more efficiently by allocating memory in a different way, speeding up the overall experience and extending battery life on laptops. So let’s apply this same thinking to the car sitting on your driveway – -what if you could install a new operating system in it and instantly improve its gas mileage by 10 or 20 percent? You’d be crazy not to upgrade to a free automobile operating system that does that.

The Internet of Things for mavericks, then, is a world in which free upgrades to the inner guts of an Internet-enabled device – whether it’s a winter jacket or an automobile — radically shifts the value proposition for innovators. It changes the way we think about products — we upgrade, we don’t buy — and at the same time, the power shifts from the people who manufacture the product to the people who design the computer inside the product. Just as with the iPad Air, what’s inside the machine is designed in America, while the cheap, unthinking exterior shell is something that’s manufactured in China.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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Matt McFarland | October 28, 2013