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Remembering Mac OS X

Although March 24, 2001 signaled the release of the first version of Apple’s long-awaited industrial-strength operating system, with loads of warts and missing features, that wasn’t the first time I got to see it. You see, Apple released a Public Beta version the previous September, but I got a look even earlier.

In those days, I was a contributing editor for CNET, and I was flown to San Francisco for a fateful meeting with a representative from Apple’s PR team to get an early introduction to the Public Beta. I was even offered a Mac Cube to take home (on loan of course), but my home system was faster, so I opted to stick with the DVD after spending about an hour with my “tour guide,” going over the salient features, such as they were.

That beta release didn’t have much going for it. The Apple menu, in fact, was lodged in the center of the menu bar, and Apple got plenty of flack for that peculiar decision. But there was plenty to complain about in other respects, since it was much slower than the most recent version of Mac OS 9. Worse, there wasn’t much software that would run native on the new OS except, surprisingly enough, for the bundled copy of Microsoft Internet Explorer. Only later did Apple develop Safari, after development of IE languished.

However, a few of us discovered early on that the latest version of AppleWorks, the integrated app suite that predated iWork, would, after a fashion, also run native under Mac OS X.

Now if you wanted the Public Beta, it would cost you $29, but Apple at least agreed to give you a discount on the real version, released the following spring.

I remember attending a media briefing for the rollout of version 10.0, code-named Cheetah. During his presentation, Steve Jobs admitted that this initial release was meant for developers and power users. It wasn’t even feature compete. Such important features as the ability to play CDs and DVDs were missing. But as a technology demonstration, the future of the Mac OS was, at long last and after loads of postponements and frustrations, a reality.

Understand that Apple didn’t even include a Mac OS X installer on new Macs for a while. Even then, it was still an optional installation, because you weren’t actually expected to use it to get real work done. For that, there was the Classic Mac OS.

By September, Apple released 10.1, also known as Puma, to fix the worst ills of Cheetah. You could pick up a copy of the upgrade package from a dealer, or send Apple $19.95 to ship you a copy. I remember how Mac users complained loudly over being gouged by Apple to mail them a critical maintenance update for the new OS.

Beginning with 10.1, Mac OS X actuallhy began to perform decently on the fastest Mac hardware, and, as more and more native apps were released, it became almost usable. I have to admit that I didn’t really switch everything over to Mac OS X until the arrival of Jaguar in August 2002. That was when the version numbers were largely supplanted with the feline name of the moment.

Some of you will correctly state that you wanted until 10.3, Panther, or 10.4 Tiger, before embracing Mac OS X. Regardless, the real watershed was probably Apple’s decision to move to Intel processors, first revealed during the 2005 WWDC. Although rumored for several years, Jobs finally revealed that Apple had a simultaneous development project in place where Mac OS X had been ported to the X86 platform. You even saw the satellite photos of the building in which the work had been done.

In January, 2006, the first Intel-based Macs appeared, and the transition was completed that summer, with the first Mac Pros, all months ahead of schedule. That development, and the easy ability to run Windows on a Mac via Apple’s Boot Camp or a virtual machine, helped trigger the sharp rise in Mac sales. Nowadays, the number of Intel-based Macs has actually exceeded the number still using PowerPC processors. Indeed the latest version of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard, is Intel only, and more and more third-party apps will soon move in the same direction.

These days, I dare say most current Mac users never used the Classic Mac OS. They do not remember anything but Mac OS X. But some veterans from the “good old days” continue to complain about the features Apple discarded along the way, although some of them have been made available via third-party utilities.

One thing, though, and that is that it’s highly unlikely Apple will observe the ninth anniversary of their great OS transition. They didn’t bother with the 25th anniversary of the Mac either, and some of us aren’t happy about that. On the other hand, perhaps they figure that moving forward is the best way to live long and prosper.