Ten years old today, how Mac OS X changed Apple's world

By Jonny Evans

Ten years ago today and Apple's [AAPL] first full public version of Mac OS X went on sale worldwide to a gleeful reception as thousands of Mac users attended special events at their local computer shops all across the planet. I was at one such event in Central London. What we didn't know then was that Apple was preparing to open up its own chain of retail outlets, nor had we heard Steve Jobs use the phrase, "iPod". Windows was still a competitor, and Google was still a search engine. These were halcyon days, when being a Mac user meant belonging to the second team.

(Let's not anthropomorphisize this. Mac OS X is an operating system and for all the big cat comparisons (Cheetah, Puma, Leopard or Lion) it doesn't celebrate a birthday, but -- like any other object (-based) 'thing', it does merit its own anniversary.)

When Apple had goodwill

Way back in 2001, the UK event saw journalists from across the tech press attend retailer, Micro Anvika. Over 400 people turned up late at night to see some of Apple UK's top dogs put Apple's new pussycat through its paces (Forgive the clumsy proximity of these analogies).

"Mac OS X is the most important software from Apple since the original Macintosh operating system in 1984 that revolutionized the entire industry," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs in a statement released at that time. "We can't wait for Mac users around the globe to experience its stability, power and elegance."  

There was a lot of excitement. Don't forget that Mac users had been loyally hanging onto a platform in crisis. We needed a new OS to help stave off falling market share; we'd seen Jobs abandon the licensing arrangement for Mac clones and we'd been through the painful Performa period.

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Life had been tough, until very recently when things began to change, with the arrival of the iMac, the iBook, and the PowerMac G3.

Steve's NeXT step

Despite the success of those machines, we all knew Mac OS needed to change for the new Century. In recent years we'd been avidly reading and researching Apple's own attempt to develop a new OS (Copland); we'd followed the company's brief flirtation with Jean-Louis Gassée's BeOS OS and the eventual "Hosannah" moment as Steve Jobs rode back into town on the back of his little futuristic NeXT-based analogous donkey. Stretching the analogy a little, Jobs was even accompanied by his very own band of disciples, including familiar names such as: Nancy Heinen, Jon Rubinstein, Bertrand Serlet, Avie Tevanian, Jean Marie Hullot and many others.


[Above: A NeXTStep desktop image, c/o Erik Dörnenburg]

What was special about NeXT? It certainly wasn't its commercial success, though it had some, but its pioneering work trail-blazed the whole notion of object-oriented programming and graphical user interfaces. Apple even made an attempt to create its own object-oriented OS with the Taligent project, which began in 1989. And failed.


Now NeXT was at Apple, work really began. Perhaps someone somewhere has a copy of the Apple turnaround road map. But even at this stage Jobs had decided the company would move to implement the NeXT OS, would develop a retail presence with a series of highly stylized stores (the NeXT offices were also fabulously "arty"), would introduce new concepts in computer design....and would eventually run on Intel processors.

The NeXT OS was ported to both PowerPC and Intel processors in Apple's labs under the code name 'Rhapsody'. There were a bunch of development tools ('Cocoa') while Apple also built an environment called 'Blue Box' ('Carbon', now defunct) which delivered backwards compatibility to the OS, allowing older applications to run.

Better than all the rest

This was a very important event. Apple now held an advanced OS everyone -- including Microsoft -- had tried and failed to emulate; it also meant Apple had a future ten-year plan, and a product to market strategy that should ensure that, at least at first, no Mac user need be left behind.

It is worth noting Apple's execution in all of this. Take for example the move to field a succession of well-received iMac and iBook computers in advance of the OS X release. This was incredibly smart because it both built the company's profile while also ensuring that when the OS launched there was an existing ecosystem of technologically-compatible Macs which could run the OS, immediately boosting adoption.

And oh, what an adoption rate we saw. On my way to the London launch party back in 2001 I came across an Italian Mac user banging on the door of a Micro Anvika branch. "I need it! Let me in! I have to have it!" he yelled as he hammered at his magic portal. I gently sympathized with him and pointed out that the Micro Anvika branch he needed to visit was ten minutes walk up the Tottenham Court Road.

The lost but Mac-passionate Italian reflected everyone's excitement. Fabio De Rosa, a freelance graphic designer, said: "I had to be here. It's an historic moment. I eat, breathe and sleep Mac."

A historic moment

Inside the shop a rapt audience of Mac users, developers, retailers and Apple staff stood to attention as Apple UK's popular and charming MD, Mark Rogers, modestly delivered a presentation which showed us what the OS could do.

The early release was quickly condemned for being a 'public beta', we all understood that change had to come, and it was exciting to be part of it. The need to add features including DVD playback and CD burning as well as ironing out a few wrinkles (cough: kernel panic, anyone?) meant Apple didn't begin shipping OS X as the default OS on all Macs until the release of Mac OS X 10.1, 'Puma'.

March 24, 2001 was still a good start. Simon Smith, Micro Anvika's Macintosh manager, told me: "I think OS X's features are great, it's very easy to use. It will be excellent for first-time buyers, but has so much to offer to advanced users. It's the applications we are waiting for."

Apple's then PR manager, David Millar, said: "We expected a good turnout, and everyone I've been talking to has been a professional designer, Web animator or programmer. We have an audience of professionals here."

Event attendance was excellent -- around 500 people showed-up that evening -- that may not sound like many people at all, in these days of retail store queues for every Apple launch, but this was the pre-iPod world, people. Things really were different then. Sales of the OS were -- to coin a phrase -- insanely great. Similar events in other countries saw Mac fans produce OS X-shaped cakes. There was a real energy across the Cult of Mac.

Developers, developers

Fast forward just four months to July 2001, and Apple's VP Worldwide Developer Relations, Ron Okamoto, said: "In a short amount of time we have seen incredible growth in our developer community and the number of Mac OS X applications now tops 1,000. Every major Mac software company sees a huge opportunity and is bringing applications to Mac OS X, while new developers are helping broaden the applications available to Mac users around the world."

Today and we see each successive release of OS X causing Apple's Mac audience to grow, not shrink. When Apple stormed into Sony's world with the introduction of the iPod a few months later in October 2001, Apple's fortunes really began to transform.

The PowerPC problem

Apple's OS couldn't hide some legacy disadvantages. The new operating system was more advanced than anything anyone else had to offer, (bar perhaps some breeds of Linux at the time), but it still ran on slow, under-powered Power PC machines.

Despite all the claims to the contrary, Apple's sales seriously suffered on the conception that PowerPC computers were slower and less capable than their Intel competition. Things had to change -- and, as was planned from the beginning, on June 6, 2005, they did. That's when Apple announced a move to Intel processors, a transition it completed by August 2006.

The later move to introduce an iPhone in 2007 (though an earlier attempt to make a 2005 launch of an Apple mobile device was shelved at the eleventh hour) consolidated the position. It also meant Apple now offered a version of a NeXT-based operating system for both Macs and mobile devices.

What's coming next?

From the OS to the platform to the eventual widening of the platform to include both mobile and desktop products, the recent ten-year history of Apple is inexorably linked to the OS it turned to after the nineties doldrums almost destroyed the Cupertino firm.

We're looking at the eighth significant OS X release in the next few months, Lion, which should offer some elements of unification between the iOS and OS X. There's still some bugs to iron out though, particularly the problem with ACL's (Access Control Lists) inside the Finder. Hopefully departing ex-NeXT Mac OS chief, Bertrand Serlet, will be able to fix this before he leaves.

Happy anniversary, OS X.

Thanks for giving us a viable alternative to Microsoft.

When did you get to OS X? What does the operating system mean to you? Are you pleased with its progress or can you imagine ways it could be improved, and what operating system can you imagine we'll be using in ten year's time? Let me know in comments below. I'd also be ever so pleased if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know just as soon as I post new reports here first on Computerworld.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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