Given the lead time necessary for mastering disks, it's not too surprising that System 7.1 has recently gone golden master. We talked about some of the features it will make available to users in TidBITS-137 and #138, although not all of them will make it into the initial release on October 19th with the new machines that require System 7.1. Can you say "Hardware drives software."?
That's the good news. The bad news, to judge from some net discussions and general rumors, is that Apple will not make System 7.1 available to copy freely, which implies that Apple will only bundle it with new machines and sell it through its growing software distribution network. We've heard mixed reports about this, so it's always possible that Apple will recant and allow user groups and bulletin boards to distribute the system software for free again, as they did with System 7.0, but frankly, at this point it doesn't look likely.
Most people will initially react poorly to this news, not surprisingly. After all, Apple has always distributed system software for free so they could be sure that all users at least had access to the latest and least buggy software. At the same time, Apple would cease to support older versions of the system software, so when Apple moved from System 4.2 up to System 6.0.2, they pretty much started ignoring 4.2. That stopped with System 7.0 when Apple said it would continue to support System 6.0.x (although all we've seen was the addition of new System 7.0-compatible printer drivers to bring System 6.0.7 up to 6.0.8). If they continue along this path of supporting older versions of the system software, the Macintosh market will become significantly more confusing and fragmented, what with System 6.0.8 running on older 1 MB machines, 7.0 on a large percentage of the newer machines, 7.0.1 on a number as well (and let's not forget Tune-Up 1.1.1!), and now System 7.1 running on power user machines (i.e., the people who will pay for the upgrade) and all new CPUs other than the Performa 200 and 400, which will still use System 7.0.1P.
The decision not to make System 7.1 freely available will further dilute the customer base using any one version of the system software, which will in turn discourage third party developers from taking advantage of system-specific features. Even if the third party vendors do exploit new system software features, they will still have to increase the size and complexity of their programs by ensuring that those programs work with other system software versions. That will slow the time to market and will require more work providing technical support ("Let me see, sir. You're running System 6.0.3 with Tune-Up 1.1 and the System 7.1 printer drivers and Microsoft Word 5.1 prints messages from the devil in your headers and footers? Have you checked for INIT conflicts? Yes? Then I'm afraid you'll have to shoot your hard disk.")
Pretty bleak, no? On the positive side, Apple stands to make a lot of money from this policy, and as much Apple seems to make a heck of a lot more money than most of us, we all do have a stake in keeping Apple healthy. Microsoft earns a ton of money from sales of DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1, not to mention all the bundling deals, and I'm sure that Apple got a bit jealous. Also, keep in mind that hardware is a cutthroat business with ever-sinking profit margins and plenty of sharks circling. Although it certainly takes time to create and support software, it has very low material costs and high profit margins. A hefty package like Excel, for instance, probably costs barely $20 to produce, but still sells for about $300 discount. To compare, the Quadra 700 with 4 MB of RAM that Apple sells at discount for $3300 would have to cost $220 to manufacture. I don't know material costs for most machines, but I'm willing to bet that a Quadra 700 costs a bit more than $220 to make. My point? Merely that as Apple makes more money from high-volume, low-priced software, they will be able to lower prices on lower-volume, higher-priced hardware to better compete with the PC-clone hardware sharks. As much as I dislike higher prices, I'd prefer that Apple prospered, lowering the hardware prices that are the entry fee into the Macintosh game.
The details -- It looks as though Apple will have three different upgrades for System 7.1, one which will include only System 7.1 for $39 ($20 street), one which will also include QuickTime 1.5 and WorldScript for $99 ($49 street), and the CD-ROM multiple user version for large sites. Despite the complaining above, most people can probably afford $20 for the seven disks or so that will comprise the upgrade. I'll bet that most QuickTime-based products will include QuickTime 1.5, and unless you use multiple languages, there's not much reason for WorldScript.
What I'm getting at is that many people may not want to upgrade until AppleScript, OCE, and QuickDraw GX ship, which may happen as late as this spring. I know that I have no real need for System 7.1 until I can use AppleScript and OCE, and frankly, at the moment, rumor has it that AppleScript, OCE, and QuickDraw GX don't work together. Of course, those who want to use multiple languages and international users will jump at the upgrade for WorldScript alone, although they'll have to wait like the rest of us for QuickDraw GX.