The Mac OS X Report: Ten Years and One Month

September 14th, 2010

Although most of you didn’t get your hands on the Public Beta of Mac OS X until September of 2000, I actually saw it a month earlier. You see, I was working as a Contributing Editor for CNET in those days, and one of Apple’s PR people met me in San Francisco to deliver the CD and — if I wanted — a Power Macintosh Cube to take home to give it a whirl. I opted to let my own Macs suffer the abuse and went home with the CD.

However, after playing with the spiffy (if somewhat overwrought) Aqua interface, I found myself sitting back and wondering what to do. Sure, the few apps that supported Mac OS X worked all right, although rather leisurely, even the supplied Microsoft Internet Explorer. But my printers remained unsupported, and forget about CD burning.

It was, I thought at the time, lots of flash and not a whole lot of useful substance. Of course, that was before I discovered the doorway to Unix underbelly, Terminal. Not that I was concerned so much about command lines and all, but it was fun to discover — or rediscover — another way to manipulate data and access hidden programs.

But wasn’t oblivious to the possibilities. This was the genuine article, the long-postponed replacement for the aging Mac OS and it was time to get with the program. I even set my literary agent to work getting me some book contracts, so I could at least make some money using the operating system that, as yet, wasn’t ready for prime time.

There wasn’t even a real Apple menu, just an icon stuck in the middle of the menu bar. Where’d Apple get the idea that such a silly maneuver wouldn’t be ignored?

March of 2001 found me traveling to Apple’s Cupertino, CA campus to join the rest of the media for a full briefing, and a copy, of the final release of Mac OS X. I had hopes once the Apple menu was restored to its rightful location, if not full functionality. But Steve Jobs delivered the disappointing reality check near the end of the presentation, that Mac OS 10.0 was meant strictly for power users and early adopters. It was somewhat more functional than the Public Beta, but there were still missing features, such as CD support, which would be restored in a future release. And, yes, it was still dreadfully slow.

Mac OS 10.1 arrived several months later, and Apple opted to make it free, sort of. If you actually went over to a Mac dealer, they’d give you the CD. Otherwise you’d pay $19.95 for shipping and handling.

Now the price for the update seemed trivial enough, but you cannot imagine the complaints Mac users made at the time. How dare Apple charge such a high fee for an upgrade that was essentially to fix bugs and add missing features? Obviously, fulfillment of those orders cost a whole lot less!

Well, forget about the early grumbling. It still took several releases for Mac OS X to become ready for prime time. Some suggest the watershed occurred with Tiger, also known as 10.4. Most of the performance issues were history, and Mac users no longer had to apologize for missing features, well mostly.

With the arrival of Snow Leopard in August 2009, Apple even dropped support for PowerPC models. It was now all Intel, which made sense since the majority of the Macs still in use also used the newer processor family.

Despite the gains made by Microsoft Windows, most who evaluate both in a truly fair and balanced fashion will admit that Mac OS X is far more elegant and easier to use by regular people.

Now in retrospect, I think most of you will agree that Mac OS X actually saved Apple. Through a large part of the 1990s, fruitless efforts were made to replace the aging Mac OS, and deliver such industrial-strength features as preemptive multitasking and protected memory. In those days, if an app crashed, you’d have to restart, whether by clicking a button on the screen or (usually) via brute force, by pressing the Reset button on your Mac. Not pretty, and there was always the danger of data loss in the process.

The first effort was something called Copland, which never passed successfully through the beta stage before being cancelled. So Apple went on a shopping trip in order to acquire another company, or at least another company’s technology. They ended up buying NeXT, Inc., which brought Steve Jobs back to the company he co-founded, and within short order, Jobs took control and declared himself iCEO, before becoming CEO for life when Mac OS X was first demonstrated at a Macworld Expo.

As I write this, I wonder if it isn’t time to speculate when Mac OS 10.7 will arrive, and what features it might offer, and, later, if there’s actually going to be a Mac OS XI (or 11) some day. Or maybe it’ll all be iOS.

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4 Responses to “The Mac OS X Report: Ten Years and One Month”

  1. Roger Mercer says:

    I loved the OS X beta from Day One. I could see the possibilities. I am old enough to have used command line interfaces extensively. I could see that with time, this would become the best operating system for almost everyone, whether for brokers, scientists, artists and dreamers or just ordinary folks. My hopes for this system have for the most part become true, though it is still a little more hinky and funky at times than I’d like. A lot of that is due to errant data storage and corruption issues that need to be addressed in future versions of the OS.

  2. DaveD says:

    I installed the Public Beta on an expansion hard drive in a PowerBook G3 Series. Had to coax it to get it to boot. But once it got going and the desktop came up, I noticed how nice it looked and so plain without the “Macintosh HD and Trash” icons. There was this new Dock at the bottom with the Trash icon that looked like a Control Strip.

    After using it for a short time the slowness of Mac OS X on my PowerBook suggested that a new Mac would be in order for the next generation. I sent to Apple a feedback of the Public Beta noting the good and bad (like the Apple icon in the middle of a valuable menu bar real estate). Hard to believe that a decade have passed and Apple is now making tons of money.

    I think that Apple getting back Steve Jobs was the key to its success in overcoming a downward spiral from becoming another computer company that had come and gone. Mr. Jobs was flexible enough to provide compatibility tools to developers so that starting from scratch with Mac OS X was no longer mandatory. With developers on board and a new all-in-one Mac, Apple was back in the driver seat.

  3. dfs says:

    I didn’t get aboard the train until the release of OSX.1. At that time, all sorts of pundits in the computer press were instructing us to partition our disks, install OSX on one partion and keep OS9 on the other so that we could play with OSX but easily get back to OS9 if problems arose and we needed to get serious work done. Well, okay, I dutifully did as instructed. Funny thing. After a couple of months it dawned me that I hadn’t had to use my OS9 partition even once, so I trashed the partition and reclaimed the space. I also realized that since switching to OSX I hadn’t experienced a single system crash. Sure, I missed some of the features I had relied on in OS9 (such as programmable f-keys, the Apple menu, a notepad), but I very quickly picked up shareware equivalents (such as Keyboard Maestro, Fruit Menu, and Jotz) and merrily went on computing. Over the next couple of years I gradually updated my software to native versions, so by the time Apple took away the ability to run programs in the Classic environment I scarcely noticed it. What experience could have been more beneficial and more painless?

  4. Karl says:

    I’m a diehard… I still love OS 9. (and 8 and 7) Of course I don’t use them now. But I really got into Macs back in 97 and still love those days. MacAddict magazine, the CHRP platform and PowerComputing made it a lot of fun to be a Mac user.

    With that said, I love OS X. From the public beta to Snow Leopard. Had a few growing pains that’s for sure, but definitely glad to that my platform of choice has survived the dark days and looks to have a bright future.

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