On 20 September, all eyes were on Sierra. Since then a few have noticed that (as usual), Apple quietly removed El Capitan from the App Store when it made Sierra available. Sort of.
If you had already downloaded El Capitan, Yosemite, Mavericks, Mountain Lion, or Lion, then you can still download their installers from the App Store. But if you hadn’t, prior to the release of the next major version of OS X / macOS, then you can’t. So those operating systems are still available from the App Store, but only to existing purchasers. Sort of.
Apple has a page explaining how to upgrade to El Capitan. After listing the Macs which are compatible with Sierra, it promises:
“If your Mac doesn’t support Sierra, or you’re using Snow Leopard and would like to upgrade to Sierra, you can get El Capitan from the App Store.”
As I have ‘purchased’ each of Sierra’s predecessors, I have no way of discovering whether the App Store will recognise that a Mac it is running on can run El Capitan but is not (officially) supported by Sierra, and suddenly offer El Capitan instead. I have a suspicion that is not the case, and that no App Store customer who had not already ‘purchased’ El Capitan has been able to obtain it from the App Store since Sierra’s release.
As there is no other official way of obtaining El Capitan or its predecessors, this shuts the door on anyone who hasn’t already ‘purchased’ them. So if you haven’t had a Mac before, but obtain an older model which cannot run Sierra, you’re presumably stuffed when it comes to wiping it and starting afresh. Similarly, despite the fact that many peripherals and software products will never run on Sierra, but do on El Capitan, unless you have already upgraded to El Capitan, you cannot do so any more.
I can think of many different cases where Mac users are left orphaned by this policy to make all previous versions of OS X vanish. Unless you happened to ‘purchase’ them previously. And so have several users who have asked me how they can now upgrade to El Capitan.
This anomaly becomes even more bizarre and wilfully obstructive if you try the next obvious solution: ask a user who has got an old El Capitan (or other previous) installer to lend you their copy. When you try to run that installer, instead of seeing an honest error telling you that, as you didn’t ‘buy’ that version of OS X, Apple is going to be spiteful and stop you from installing it now. No, that would be far too direct and open.
Instead, the error which appears tells you:
“This copy of the Install OS X El Capitan application can’t be verified. It may have been corrupted or tampered with during downloading. Delete this copy of the application, and go to the Purchases page of the Mac App Store to download a new copy.”
Catch 22: El Capitan does not appear on your Purchases page, as you haven’t purchased it. You can’t purchase it because, although it is still available from the App Store, as you didn’t buy it before 20 September, you can’t buy it now. Yet Apple does make every minor update and security patch available for free download.
One correspondent has spent time discussing this with Apple Support, and discovered that this is Apple policy, and there is no technical reason that the App Store could not still make El Capitan and earlier available to its customers.
I cannot for the life of me understand why Apple should have a policy which can only upset a small but significant number of customers, without offering itself the slightest glimmer of commercial gain. After all, Mavericks, Yosemite, El Capitan, and Sierra have all been completely free, until the release of the next major version, when they have become priceless for some unfortunate users.