So I Woke Up and Realized That OS X Is Fifteen Years Old

March 25th, 2016

I knew I was taking a chance. I boarded an early morning flight to San Jose (yes I knew the way) one spring day in 2001. I had perhaps a one hour margin of error, and a late arrival might have made this trip a waste, because I would not have been able to get to Apple’s One Infinite Loop headquarters in time for a long-awaited media event. From the airport, I had to take a short cab trip to Cupertino, maybe 15 minutes or so.

Fortunately, I arrived with 30 minutes to spare to attend the launch of the first release of OS X, or Mac OS X, as it was known then. The previous September, Apple released a Public Beta, meant to showcase the potential of the Unix-based OS — and largely to prove to skeptics that it really existed after so many delays.

Days before the Public Beta arrived, I had journeyed to the San Francisco headquarters of CNET to meet with an Apple PR rep to receive a copy of the installation DVD and a short briefing. They even offered me a Power Mac G4 Cube on which to test it, but I preferred to try it out it on my own equipment, not a machine specially configured by Apple. There was no objection.

My initial response was that it was bereft of features. The non-functional Apple menu was stuck in the middle of the menu bar. It was also dead slow even on the fastest Power Mac G4 of the time. Apple hadn’t yet optimized the graphics to tap the graphics hardware, so it was especially sluggish when displaying the fancy Aqua graphics. Moreover, with so few apps ported to the new OS, there wasn’t a lot to do except to try it out and reboot under Mac OS 9.

I had hopes for Mac OS 10.0, and I arrived at Apple’s headquarters almost in the front of the line, which earned me a second row seat inside. This is the same auditorium where Apple displayed the iPhone SE and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro earlier this week.

Curiously, Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller sat right in front of me. In those days, Jobs wasn’t averse to sometimes almost mingling with the masses. But he seemed uncomfortable when I courteously said “bless you” after he sneezed.

So Jobs and his team demonstrated Mac OS X, code name Cheetah. It wasn’t until OS 10.2, Jaguar, that Apple opted to use a code name as the official product name. In any case, it was hopeful that a real Apple menu had been added in its proper spot at the left side of the menu bar, although it wasn’t quite as functional as the one from the Classic Mac OS.

At the end of the presentation, Jobs revealed that this supposed final release was really, for all practices, yet another public beta, but sold at the full retail price of $129, minus the $29 if you bought the Public Beta. He admitted that some features, such as CD burning, and a more efficient printing system, would be added later on. This first release was meant for power users and developers.

The rest might as well leave it be. New Macs would still ship with Mac OS 9 as the boot operating system, and it took a couple more release before OS X was the default system. Other than a proper Apple menu and other seemingly minor refinements, 10.0 was still dog slow. I stayed within the Aqua environment long enough to write a few books and magazine articles about it, after which I returned to Mac OS 9 to get some real work done.

After the presentation, Jobs invited questions from the media. One of those questions got his hackles up. A reporter asked about the rumored decision to discontinue the G4 Cube. Jobs’ sharp retort: “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

A few weeks later, Apple made it official. The Cube had clearly been a failure in the marketplace, despite a recent price cut. It was overpriced and underpowered. There wasn’t much expansion room inside, but some kept them and still cherish them. When I reviewed the Cube shortly after it was released in 2000, I said it belonged in a museum, echoing a sarcastic crack from an Indiana Jones film. But I was right. It might have seemed a clever idea, but I suspect it was an indulgence on the part of Jobs, meant as a modern successor to the original NeXT Cube. But that didn’t sell terribly well either.

It’s 15 years later. OS X has overcome its early shortcomings and is now a tool used by tens of millions of Mac users. Some long-time Mac fanatics still fret over the fact that today’s Apple menu still hasn’t gained all the features of its Classic Mac OS predecessor, but to most it doesn’t matter. Apple found a solution to its OS problem that has worked for 15 years. In 2018, on the occasion of its 17th anniversary, its longevity will match that of the original Mac OS.

Or will Apple be touting a successor by then? OS 11, Mac OS Pro? Or will there by something that combines iOS and OS X into something altogether new, something that configures itself automatically for the kind of equipment it’s being used on? But isn’t that what Microsoft is touting with Windows 10? Even if it is, Apple’s solution will surely be more elegant and more reliable.

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5 Responses to “So I Woke Up and Realized That OS X Is Fifteen Years Old”

  1. DaveD says:

    Another enjoyable article to read this morning. Yes, I read about the 15 years of Mac OS X/OS X bringing back memories. A purchaser of the public beta to experience the excitement of the upcoming Mac OS replacement. Well, Mac OS X Public Beta was very pretty, but very slow. So if I am to ride on the Mac OS X train, it would have to be a newer Mac. Later that year in November (after 9/11 tragedy), I handed $$$$ to Apple for a new titanium PowerBook G4 that came with Mac OS 9.2.1 and Mac OS X 10.1. That PowerBook took me through every new Mac OS X releases ending at 10.4.11 (Tiger). That Mac OS X was carrying a big, big luggage. It had the name “Intel” on it. What a ride!

  2. Bill Nation says:

    On 24 March 2001, I drove nearly three hours to a Fry’s in Arlington, Texas, to purchase my copy of Mac OS X 10.0. I installed it on our Power Mac G4 tower and was amazed at the improvement to graphics and the overall look and feel of the system. Even with the issues 10.0 had, I jumped into it and never looked back. Currently running the latest El Capitan version and finding it to be rock solid. Thanks, Apple, for creating *the* best set of OS’s ever!

  3. ulukila says:

    Gene, after all those years it is time to get over it.

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