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Mac OS X at 20: The OS That Changed Everything

Has it really been that long? 24 March 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of Mac OS X. For those of us who were there to witness its release, it’s stunning to think that most of today’s Apple users never used the “classic” Mac OS that powered the Mac from 1984 to 2001 (and beyond: some people still use it).

Former Apple executive Scott Forstall made a rare tweet to commemorate the occasion, recalling when Steve Jobs slashed an X into a wall to declare the name.

When Mac OS X (now simply called macOS) debuted in 2001, it felt like something from the future, with its photo-realistic icons and animations. Stephen Hackett maintains a gallery of screenshots from Mac OS X 10.0, and it’s amazing how well it holds up two decades later.

About This Mac on Mac OS X 10.0
Screenshot courtesy Stephen Hackett of 512 Pixels.

Mac OS X introduced concepts then foreign to Mac users, like the Dock and Terminal. As someone who lived through the transition, Mac OS X was a huge leap forward. It made not only the classic Mac OS feel dated, but also Microsoft’s competing Windows XP, which wouldn’t even ship until August of that year.

But the initial release of Mac OS X 10.0 was basically a paid beta. (It wouldn’t be until 10.9 Mavericks that it became free.) Many features of classic Mac OS were missing, app compatibility was sparse outside of Classic mode, and while the operating system felt like something out of the future, it also seemed to be waiting for future hardware. Performance was dreadful. Adam Engst documented those early rough edges in “Mac OS X: The Future Is Here – Coming Soon!” (26 March 2001), saying:

The reason for Apple’s quiet release is simple – in my opinion, Mac OS X doesn’t offer most people enough advantages over Mac OS 9. One fact is indisputable: Mac OS X can’t currently do everything that’s possible with today’s hardware and software. A number of Apple’s high-profile features are missing, such as playing DVDs and burning both DVDs and CD-Rs. Hardware is also problematic – although Mac OS X has support for some peripherals and expansion cards, using other pieces of hardware may require the user to reboot in Mac OS 9.1. (A tip – on Macs since the beige Power Mac G3, hold down the Option key when restarting to receive a choice of operating systems to use for the next startup.) And of course, although many applications run fine in Mac OS X’s Classic mode, few applications have been “carbonized” so they can run natively under Mac OS X. Luckily, among those already carbonized are Apple’s own iTunes, iMovie 2, and a preview of AppleWorks 6.1, all of which can be downloaded.

Mac OS X 10.1 followed in October 2001 with performance improvements, CD burning, and interface enhancements (see “Mac OS X 10.1: The Main Features,” 1 October 2001). That was my first version of Mac OS X, which I installed on a PowerBook G3 (Lombard).

If you’re interested in a stroll down memory lane, Jason Snell has a compilation of his Mac OS X coverage over the years, along with an overview of the changes in each version. For those with lots of free time, John Siracusa maintains links to all of his voluminous Ars Technica Mac OS X reviews, from 10.0 to 10.10 Yosemite.

Mac OS X may have had a rough start, but it created the underpinnings not only for the future of the Mac, but also for the iPhone, iPad, and even the Apple Watch. It’s arguably one of the most consequential software launches in history, but it almost didn’t happen.

A Desperate Gambit

Over at Macworld, Jason Snell has done an outstanding job of documenting the birth of Mac OS X. The original Mac OS was groundbreaking in 1984, but it aged quickly. By the 1990s, it was clear that Mac OS needed a complete overhaul, but the Apple of that era was a disaster. The most famous attempt was codenamed Copland, and you can get a sense of it on the Paul’s Crap YouTube channel.

Apple eventually realized that the best way forward was to buy a new operating system. The choice was between two companies headed by former Apple executives: Steve Jobs’s NeXT and Jean-Louis Gassée’s Be. Everyone knows how that turned out.

NeXTSTEP provided more than just Mac OS X’s Unix foundation, including key interface elements like the Dock, apps like TextEdit, and the use of Objective-C for building apps (which is now largely being supplanted by Swift). Long-time Mac developer James Thomson coded the Dock and tweeted about his nervousness at watching Jobs demo it for the first time.

Apple’s 1997 purchase of NeXT caused quite the stir. Geoff Duncan documented it for us in “What System Comes NeXT?” (6 January 1997). A few months later, Adam Engst offered some analysis of the NeXT purchase and then-CEO Gil Amelio’s decisions in “Apple’s Decisions” (31 March 1997):

One theme among the mail I’ve received about Apple’s recent changes is the perception that former NeXT employees are now making Apple’s decisions. One person even commented that it felt like NeXT had bought Apple, not the other way around. To some extent, these perceptions are accurate – after all, Avie Tevanian and Jon Rubinstein, two ex-NeXT folks, are in charge of the operating system and hardware divisions.

That turned out to be perceptive indeed, as it’s now well-documented history that NeXT took over from within. As Adam remarked at the time, “What else could Gil have done?” Gil Amelio is often cited as the worst Apple CEO, but if nothing else, he made the correct decision in purchasing NeXT and bringing back Steve Jobs, even if he didn’t realize he was putting his own head on the chopping block by doing so.

But there were questions about whether Apple would keep being Apple after being consumed from the inside by NeXT:

In essence, the acquisition of NeXT is having a significant impact on Apple’s culture. That’s not necessarily bad, but it can make for an occasionally acrimonious transition. The question is whether the attitudes and beliefs that made the Macintosh special can survive in the new atmosphere.

Apple veteran Imram Chaudhri, who is credited with much of the iPhone’s interface, among many other accomplishments, tweeted a funny anecdote about his early interactions with Jobs and how a second-hand NeXT cube helped him win many arguments with the strong-willed CEO by letting him demonstrate the operating system’s many flaws.

Beyond X

Mac OS X was the operating system’s official name until Apple dropped the “Mac” part halfway through the reign of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion (we refused to switch mid-cycle, waiting instead until 10.8 Mountain Lion). Some years later, Apple dropped the X and recast the name again with macOS 10.12 Sierra. Now with macOS 11 Big Sur, Apple has finally moved on from the 10 version number, finally giving macOS updates sensible version numbers (see “How to Decode Apple Version and Build Numbers,” 8 July 2020).

Names aside, the NeXT-derived core of Mac OS X remains, even through architectural transitions from PowerPC to Intel and now from Intel to Apple silicon. And while a few apps from the early days are no more, many of the original Mac OS X applications remain, like the underappreciated and surprisingly powerful Preview.

The original Mac OS had an official run of 17 years, and the descendants of Mac OS X 10.0 are still going strong 20 years after its introduction, with no end in sight. What was once a desperate attempt by a flawed CEO to save a dying company has blossomed into a $2 trillion ecosystem.

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Comments About Mac OS X at 20: The OS That Changed Everything

Notable Replies

  1. I still remember standing in line at Mac World in Paris for the OSX preview version in its carton envelope and then sitting outside pouring over all that wonderful promissory goodness.

    Those were great days.

  2. I recall a colleague actually buying the Public Beta, but I think I waited until 10.1 - and haven’t installed an x.0 version ever since.

    Since the article mentions the ArsTechnica reviews, and I happen to have links for them, here are the later ones (now written by Andrew Cunningham): 10.11 10.12 10.13 10.14 10.15 and 11.0

  3. I have every version at home, starting with Mac OS X beta. Installed all of them and I think I started using it on a regular basis at home and work with 10.1, even though much software was running in Classic.

  4. Paris MacWorlds… man. Forgot about them.

  5. Bought my first Mac Titanium PowerBook G4 precisely because it came with Mac OS X, albeit on an included DVD as it booted MacOS 9. Why? Because it ran every single Linux application I threw at it. It was the best of both worlds and you had Office and Adobe apps on top. When they switched to Intel it was very good with virtualization via VMware & Parallels & VirtualBox.

    But the most important thing about the NeXT acquisition was the cross platform kernel and advanced developer API’s that were way ahead of their time. So much so that most of it is still in the latest macOS 11. It’s also in every iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, etc. When Apple launched Mac OS X it ran on PowerPC but it was also running internally on Intel. The new Apple Silicon M1 and subsequent SoC processors are merely scaled up iPhone & iPad processors. Larger die size and more cores but essentially the same thing with plenty of engineering differences due to the different design constraints. But macOS 11 is still running the same code just compiled for the ARM instruction set based Apple Silicon.

    The technology from NeXT has been Apple’s secret weapon all along, none of the successes over the last 20 years would have been possible without it. OpenStep ran on multiple architectures including Windows. NeXT had WYSIWYG before anyone else because it used DisplayPostcript. Mac OS X had to use DisplayPDF due to Adobe not willing to relicense Postscript. That’s why you can create PDF’s on a Mac by default. NeXT was doing audio and video snippets in email way back in the early days. That’s turned into audio clips in Messages. Tim-Berners-Lee created HTTPd and the World Wide Web on a NeXT workstation. Doom, the video game was developed on a NeXT workstation. NeXT was running software for Wall Street. It’s early development RAD (Rapid Application Development) predated Visual Basic with it’s drag and drop GUI construction. I remember developers using graph paper to measure out their screens so they could calculate all the x, y coordinates they had to code by hand. The list goes on and on and on. The work done on NeXTStep & OpenStep paved the way to the future of Apple. Sure, there are new API’s but if you look at the existing API’s most start with ‘ns’ which stands for NeXTStep.

  6. The first Mac that I got to use for work — a PowerMac G4 — came with OS 9.1 preinstalled, plus (I think) OSX 10.0 as an option. For compatibility reasons, we opted to stay with OS 9.1 until a few years later when it became necessary to move to OSX and we upgraded the machine to 10.3. Workplace subsequently bought a PowerMac G5 running OSX 10.4. Neither PowerMac got upgraded past those versions.

    My first personal Mac was a 2011 iMac 27" which came with OSX 10.7 Lion, and was upgraded through to 10.14 Mojave. The current machine is a 2017 iMac 27" which is currently on Catalina.

    I do miss the Aqua interface from the earlier versions, current macOS feels pretty sterile by comparison.

  7. I miss the colors, the text contrast, the skeuomorphism.

    Booting up an old system is a breath of fresh air. Full color icons, larger sidebar icons in full color in the finder, black text on white background.

    I can’t wait for Apple to reinvent the wheel, and do away with shades of grey text, color translucency, tiny grey icons … that reduce contrast and make everything harder.

    We see in full color, so give me full color.

    Reducing contrast and making it harder to read things, distinguish things fromtheir surroundings, etc makes zero sense.

  8. @ icerabbit

    I fully agree. And the latest ergonomic design blunder is the new Big Sur icon style where you can’t distinguish one from the other in the dock. The iOS icons were designed to always stay large on the screen. In MacOS they can get far smaller and that’s where shape and colour become much more important.

    I found this icon comparison on this page here.

    When the human interface design falls victim to ideology, downhill is where you go. Jony Ive is a great hardware designer, but keep him (and his ghost) far from your GUI.

    But don’t get me wrong. I like many of the Big Sur changes as far as they bring back colour and clarity. But I still think its lickability coefficient is far too low. Steve Jobs had a very good eye for it. Apple is clearly in need of that eye.

  9. Yes I remember how “well received” brushed aluminium QuickTime player, iTunes, and the large AppleWorks 6 icons were.

  10. If you wanted to examine settings of one OS 9 Control Panel while another was already open, you could just open it, too, and look at ‘em both. Good luck doing that with a couple of System Preference items, even after 20 Years. Never could understand that.

  11. I still use one of my SE/30s. (Circa 1990) It is running A/UX (Apple’s licensed version of ATT UNIX). UNIX not OS X was the revolutionary change it just took Apple a long time to get back to it.

  12. Fun read. Twenty years, though some of us were enjoying the wonders of Mac OS X ten years earlier under the guise of NeXTSTEP. Apple buying Next in 1997 always felt like a reverse takeover to me. Tevanian and Rubinstein were kinda heroes of mine. First read the news while breakfasting at a London Hotel on route back home to Japan. I knew then Apple was going to survive. The rest is…

  13. I hadn’t remembered that, but I have to admit, I can’t think of a single instance in the last 20 years when I’ve wanted to compare two panes of System Preferences side-by-side. Most of the settings in them are completely unrelated, and those that aren’t (like hot corners applying to the screen saver and Mission Control) are accessible in multiple locations. I suppose that if this was something you really needed to do, a screenshot of one pane would let you look at it while working in another.

  14. blm

    I remember a joke from not long after the takeover that NeXT had acquired Apple for -$429 milion.

  15. I remember it being stated that Display Postscript was too slow and moving to Display PDF improved performance and that Display Postscript added a lot of complexity. But perhaps that was a cover story.

    A more important reason was that Apple didn’t want to be beholden to Adobe. Adobe could have used a Display Postscript license to blackmail Apple at any time.

  16. Might be a cover, but it makes sense to me. PostScript is (and always has been) far more than just a page-description language for printers. It is a general-purpose programming language. As such, any PostScript implementation (display or otherwise) is going to require support for all kinds of capabilities that are rarely (if ever) used for driving printers.

    Additionally, PostScript output tends to lose all semantic knowledge of the source document. There may not even be text in the file - replacing it all with the various spline curves and regions generated by the fonts. So it is far more difficult if you want to load a PS file and try editing what you’ve loaded - even simply copying text as something other than vector graphics may not be possible.

    PDF, on the other hand, is far more narrowly focused and is designed specifically for the purpose of document presentation. It drops the complicated features that aren’t needed for document presentation and it adds other features (e.g. OCR text overlays for bitmaps) that are really useful for this purpose.

    So the choice always made sense to me.

    Adobe’s licensing is another issue, but I’m sure Apple could have negotiated something. Adobe, for all its market presence, is not the unstoppable juggernaut that IBM was (c.f. what happened to Rosetta). Especially if Apple built its own PostScript engine without using Adobe’s code.

  17. According to the official Steve Jobs biography, it stated that Adobe was unwilling to license Postscript for use as DisplayPostscript. However that could mean that Apple was unwilling to pay whatever insane pricing Adobe offered. PDF is based on Postscript and is open source so they went with that. Not every feature of Postscript’s language was required. Engineers obviously figured out what they needed and made it work.

  18. To give credit where credit is due, the first thing Jony Ive did upon joining Apple was to kill the screen clogging, pathetic, idiotic and horrifically dreadful skeuomorphic design, returning Mac OS to simplicity and clarity:

  19. I was always told that the PS screen font was a fast rendering vector. It is necessary because even today it would take waaay to long for the actual PS font to scale and display on screen.

    The vast majority of professional imagesetters still require PS fonts, and they won’t even accept TrueType that was converted to vectors. No matter what font sellers tell you, the very big percentage of professional imagesetters will only accept true PostScript fonts.

  20. That’s not what I remember. Adobe and Microsoft teamed up to develop TrueType and later OpenType. At the time MS was pressuring companies to abandon development for Macs, and Windows couldn’t properly display and print PostScript fonts, at least until a much later version of Windows. But Windows still can’t handle PS well, and though it might run OK on home and small office printers, to this day most high end professional printers will only accept PS fonts. It’s a big reason why Macs still rule in the printing and media industries.

    Display PS is designed to render and display quickly to be viewed on screen. It might be possible print documents set in 10,12,14,16 and 18 inch type on a home or small office printer, won’t scale or print properly in much larger or smaller sizes. And the vast majority of professional imagesetters will only accept PS fonts, no matter what the size, because the quality will be unacceptable.

  21. All of that is true. At the same time was NeXT who licensed Postscript and invented Display Postscript. The first real WYSIWYG solution. But when Apple bought NeXT they were unable to relicense PostScript for Mac OS X for whatever reason. Either Adobe refused to license it or they asked for too high a price. Regardless the Apple / NeXTStep engineers rebuilt it using PDF Display instead as PDF was open source.

  22. You’re misremember the history of TrueType and OpenType. Apple developed TrueType and then licensed for free it to Microsoft. Microsoft developed OpenType after it failed to license GX Typography (now Apple Advanced Typography) from Apple.

  23. Thanks for the memory lane!

    When Mac OS X (now simply called macOS) debuted in 2001, it felt like something from the future

    Not to me. It felt like something out of X Windows (Unix). And by missing many Mac features, it felt like something from the past.

    The real key here was not the dock and terminal. It was the kernel.

    Windows 3.1 was huge, but people waited a lot for that hourglass. At that time, IBM released OS/2 which supported preemptive multitasking. THAT was the magic. And it performed way better than Windows 3.1.

    But then Microsoft came out with Windows 95, and they pretty much nailed preemptive multitasking. OS/2 sadly died after that.

    Mac still struggled. As you mentioned, Copeland, and especially Gershwin, were their vision of implementing preemptive multitasking. But retooling was less work than jumping ship.

    NeXT borrowed from Unix technology in their kernel, and that was the magic. The UI was basically a minimalist skin to the real deal under the hood. The icons were nice, but so were the ones in X Windows. Kind of hard to believe Forestall thinks there was anything magic about Jobs marking X on the wall. Seems more like plagiarism.

    Anyway, so we were late to the game. But Windows never revamped their memory model, in order to maintain backwards compatibility. That has hindered their OS progress. Apple really started over, and that has paid off.

  24. Not really. While the icons used by NeXTStep were nothing that special, the “real deal” was the object-oriented API. The massive (and original) API based on Objective-C was completely new to the Unix world (it borrowed many concepts from SmallTalk, but SmallTalk was never popular outside of Xerox’s research labs). That’s the thing that made it more than just another generic X11 desktop skin.

    This API, ported to the Mac platform, formed the basis of the Cocoa API. This is why, for instance, most of the Cocoa classes all begin with “NS” - it’s short for NeXTStep.

    As with so many innovations in computer science, the part users can see on their desktop is almost irrelevant compared to all of the truly unique work implemented under the covers.

  25. I had a B&W G3 to use in grad school, and one day after OS X had became usable, it struck me what a wonderful position Apple managed to get itself into. OS X was a Unix system, and it fit right in with all the other Unix-based systems in the department. I could NFS mount disks from my advisor’s computer, run X Window apps, develop software, etc. It was also a Mac, so I could run my favorite Mac apps for email, web browsing, etc. It was the best of both worlds.

  26. MS’s pricing/licensing monopoly power was a big reason OS/2 failed, along with an army of PC hardware manufacturers entering the market that was owned by IBM. It was one of the big reasons why MS lost the antitrust lawsuit that was brought to the US Supreme Court by Netscape:

    Interestingly, OS/2 was initially developed via a partnership between IBM and Microsoft at the time when IBM was the biggest and most respected PC manufacturer in the globe, around when 1984 became not like 1984.

  27. Yes, I was talking about the UI, not the APIs, which are effectively middleware between the UI and the kernel. :slight_smile:

  28. Yea. I didn’t mean to suggest that Windows 95’s multi-tasking made Windows as good as OS/2. But it was good enough such that, combined with MS’s massive entrenched base, nailed OS/2’s coffin shut.

    Reminds me of a huge contract I worked on for McCormick (spices) down in Baltimore back in the 90s. They were an all-IBM shop: IBM-brand PCs, OS/2, Token-ring network interfaces… Curious what they’re using now!

  29. As a former OS/2 developer I will say that OS/2’s biggest failure was that IBM could not (and still can not) market a consumer-oriented product whatsoever. They’re great at selling multi-million dollar systems to other mega-corporations, but that have absolutely zero clue how to sell anything to small businesses and individual users. They couldn’t do it then and they can’t do it today.

    It wasn’t much of a partnership. Most of the work, it seems, was done by Microsoft. IBM only really took over after Microsoft abandoned the project (and its users).

    I still have a box of VHS tapes from Microsoft containing videos from Bill Gates and others telling the developer community how OS/2 was the cornerstone of Microsoft’s vision of the future and how everybody must support it in order to be successful. Then, when they finally managed to ship all the features they promised, they bailed out and didn’t even give the developers a refund for their (very expensive) OS/2 2.0 pre-release development kits. Fortunately, IBM stepped forward and granted them all licenses for the IBM version.

    Microsoft made a lot of enemies that year and I’m still upset at how they flat-out broke every promise they made to their users and developers. Their claim that Windows 95 was somehow superior was false in every possible understanding of the term - the only thing it had going for it was that it looked prettier.

    Microsoft leveraged monopoly power and vastly superior marketing in order to convince the world that a thin GUI wrapper around MS-DOS (which is all Windows 95 was) was somehow superior to a proper multitasking/multithreading/protected operating system like OS/2.

    Microsoft didn’t have a real technological competitor until Windows NT shipped and that was pretty much a business-only OS. It wasn’t until Windows XP, where the DOS-based Windows platform was abandoned once and for all, that their consumer product had anything technologically close to OS/2 version 1.1.

  30. Flashback recently had an episode on OS/2 which is a great 40-minute jaunt through the twists and turns of IBM’s OS strategy and the crazy ride that was OS/2.

  31. I worked in ad sales on the IBM account for many years, and this is 100% true. It was especially evident in the release of the PCjr (pronounced PC Junior), which was released when cheapo PC clones began flooding the market, when “1984 would not be like 1984.”

    The product development and marketing strategy was the dumbest ever…a dumbed down product with almost no storage space or memory that could not do very much at all, a lot less than Macs and cheapo PCs. And they insisted on marketing it stressing had an independently designed keyboard that barely resembled a regular keyboard; even worse than even Apple’s butterfly disaster. And they insisted on marketing it as NOT being fully featured at a time when cheapo PC desktops cost a lot less than PCjr, were fully featured and could run MS and Lotus Office stuff.

    They had a great ad campaign featuring a Charlie Chaplin impersonator and spent gazillions of dollars in media across the board. Unknowingly, IBM bought airtime, I think more than one commercial, during the 1984 Super Bowl, only to have been totally blown away by “1984” before their already overexposed Chaplain ad ran for a dumbed down product.

    I always liked working with the ad agency and the people at IBM, but my mind still boggles when I think about PCjr.

  32. Our printer of many years, and our new printer, has no problem with OTF TT fonts. We publish a city magazine and use other printers for smaller jobs. Never a complaint about TT fonts. We rarely get ads with Multimaster fonts and those won’t print. And there is an abomination of a font from Microsoft that also won’t print, we get an ad with that font once a year and convert it to outlines.

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