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Why Apple can afford to charge so little for Snow Leopard

12 August 2009 · Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Apple will charge just US$29 for the next major release of Mac OS X. Most previous versions have cost US$129. How can they afford to charge so little? Because Snow Leopard will pay for itself by retiring software debt.

The excuse Apple give for not charging more is that there aren’t very many new features, but as someone who spends all day every day in front of my MacBook, “better, faster, easier” is something for which I’d gladly pay full price.

My theory (backed up by exactly zero insider sources) is that Apple want to get Snow Leopard on as many Macs as possible because this version focuses on retiring software debt, dramatically cutting the cost of future innovation, not to mention support.

What is this “software debt” I speak of? It is the added complexity that accrues in software when developers focus more on features than on the changeability of the system. According to Agile Journal (thanks to Richard Paul for the link), there are the following 5 sources of software debt:

Building software, especially software as complex as an operating system, involves thousands of trade-offs. When you’re trying to ship, sometimes you have to choose between cutting corners to get something done or cutting features. Apple have done a good job, in my opinion, of managing this balance, but inevitably cruft crept in. Snow Leopard represents Apple letting their fields lie fallow, so to speak. They are forgoing scads of new features to focus on tightening things up. And, I’m glad.

For the record, the Bible exhorts farmers not to plant every 7th year. It’s been 7 years since the first (usable) version of Mac OS X (10.1), the last version given away free. Coincidence? I think not!

By focusing on software debt, Apple will reduce the cost of developing and supporting future versions of OS X. They also make every user’s computing experience more efficient and stable. It’s a win all around. Enough of a win to justify chopping US$100 off the price.