Apple Inc. rolled out a raft of new announcements yesterday, but here’s one that isn’t as flashy as the promise of a new iPad. Still, it’s a notable one – Apple’s Craig Federighi, the company’s SVP of software engineering, said Apple wants to see “Mavericks in as many hands as possible” – making the new operating system free for Mac users.

As John Paczkowski of All Things D writes, this isn’t a new phenomenon for Apple. However, it has been 16 years since Apple offered an OS update for free, with the last one in 1991 with System 7.

Doing this isn’t really just a nice treat for Mac users, though. By giving all of its customers the newest version of its desktop operating system, Apple stays competitive.

One reason is goodwill – giving away something for free makes Apple customers feel like they’ve gained something. Also, by having a free OS, more developers will be likely to get in on building apps for it, meaning they don’t have to worry about supporting and building apps for older versions if consumers are using this one.

“The era of charging separately for hardware and software and expecting the user to assemble and install them is coming to an end,” said Yankee Group vice-president Carl Howe in an interview with Paczkowski.

“As of today, Microsoft now remains the last and only company that explicitly sells its operating system separately from a hardware product. I believe that users will increasingly see buying hardware and software from different vendors making as much sense as buying your car engine and transmission from different companies.”

And of course, if the software experience is a good one, users will pay more to get the hardware that will run this software, Paczkowszki writes. That’s just the strategy Apple has been playing with its mobile devices – get free immediate upgrades when you buy the device, and it’s the one Apple will probably keep using to encourage users to stay locked into its apps and its ecosystem.

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