Happy XIIIth birthday, OS X!

On March 24, 2001, Apple released Mac OS X v10.0. Codenamed "Cheetah," the new Mac operating system represented a radical departure from what came before it. OS X would help to mold Apple into what it's become today and it would also lay the groundwork for the enormous success Apple saw with mobile devices.

In the late 1990s Apple had a problem. Its operating system was showing its age. The software had gone through nine major revisions over the years and had been steadily improved and refined over the years.

But there were problems. After more than a decade of development, the seams in Mac OS were showing - the software didn't support things like protected memory, which keeps applications from killing the entire system and requiring a restart, or preemptive multitasking, which enables the computer to more efficiently handle requests from multiple applications at the same time.

Apple had come up with what it hoped would be solutions to these problems multiple times over the years. Apple's Taligent program, which because a joint project with IBM, sought to solve this and other issues, but it would run out of steam. Later efforts with code names like Copland and Gerswhin would come to light, again to shore up the problems apparent in Mac OS and give it a direction for the future. None of these panned out.

Eventually Apple bought Steve Jobs' computer maker NeXT. NeXTSTEP, the operating system NeXT had developed for its own computers, ultimately served as the basis for OS X. The rest, as they say, is history.

When the public beta of OS X debuted in September of 2000, it was very rough around the edges. It cost about $30 to buy, and it introduced users to a new design language - a transition away from the traditional Mac OS interface to something that Apple called "Aqua." It was most certainly not ready for prime time, but that didn't stop many users from buying it and trying it out. Users became familiar with some interface elements we still have today, like the Dock, and apps that we still use - Preview, TextEdit and Mail were all part of that initial release.

Apple's first major release of OS X happened on March 24th. Mac OS X 1.0 cost $129, and it sported a lot of improvements over the public beta release. It still was plagued with problems - slow performance, bugs, missing features. There were some glaring show-stoppers, too - fatal bugs that would cause a kernel panic, requiring you to restart the computer. There was no DVD playback capability in that initial release, and you couldn't burn CDs either - features already present in Mac OS 9.

Even Apple recognized that Mac OS X 10.0 had problems - beyond maintenance updates that slowly reintegrated missing features and functionality, improved performance and reliability, Apple ultimately decided to make the next version, 10.1 (codenamed "Puma"), a free update for anyone running 10.0. That'd be the last time Apple gave anyone a freebie until OS X 10.9, "Mavericks," came out last fall.

Cheetah was deeply flawed. Many Mac users avoided it, and continued using "classic" Mac OS 9 for a while longer. But Cheetah's importance in the evolution of the Macintosh cannot be overstated: Mac OS X 10.0 gave Apple and Mac developers a solid enough foundation to get the Macintosh started towards a bright future. It wouldn't be too long before Mac OS X went from being a curiosity to being stable and solid enough for everyone to migrate to.

The iMac, introduced several years earlier, had been instrumental in turning Apple's fortunes around - from a joke, a sad footnote in computer history, to a thriving and growing company. Mac OS X would give Apple another huge push forward - a modern operating system for modern computers, and a clear sign that Apple was in it for the long haul.

Mac OS X also laid the groundwork for what would ultimately propel Apple to where it is today: the most valuable company in the world today (based on market capitalization). How? By serving as the basis for iOS, which powers all of Apple's iPhones, iPads and iPod touches. Even if OS X went away tomorrow, it's had a transformative impact on the world of technology that's been, by any measure of the word, truly disruptive.

Any ideas one where the next decade and a third should take them? Sound off!

Peter Cohen
  • Wow time flies! Just the other day I was sitting in front of the Lisa in my father's office dragging all that weird stuff on the desktop into that cute trash can! Then, lickable gum drop buttons. Boom!
  • "By the time 2013 was over Apple had a problem. Its operating system was showing its age. The software had gone through four major revisions (and four minor updates) over the years and had been steadily improved and refined over the years". :) Unfortunately the spinning beachball is still alive and unchanged while the whole concept of desktop has become the past.
  • "Any ideas one where the next decade and a third should take them?" First: gradually wean users away from skeuomorphism. Get rid of all the faux crap. No more faux shadows, faux glossiness, faux realism. Make it functional and clean. Make OS X look slightly more like iOS, but not too much. There will always be an irrationally conservative faction who lash out against even the smallest cosmetic changes to OS X. But it would help to build a family resemblance between OS X and iOS. Familiarity is a feature. And I think it could happen as soon as this summer at WWDC, when OS X 10.10 beta or whatever it's going to be called will be rolled out to devs. Next: add interoperability between iOS devices and Mac screens. Apple could do something like AirPlay, but instead of "extra screening" only to an Apple TV, it could play to a Mac screen. And guess what. My iMac's screen is exactly 1920 x 1080, which just happens to be the exact pixel geometry of HDTV, which just happens to have the exact 16:9 aspect ratio that my iPhone 5 has. Probably not a coincidence. If you happen to be near an Apple TV or Mac, the new feature could let you tell your iPhone or iPad or iPod touch to use the other device's bigger screen. This would be pretty easy to do. We'll know if Apple wants to go to a unified 16:9 scheme if and when new MacBook Air and Pro lines are rolled out. If they're also 16:9, then I think Apple just might do the AirPlay-to-bigger-screen-Apple-Device thing. Later, after a few years of toning down OS X and increasing iOS-to-OS-X interoperability, Apple could start making Siri the dominant interaction mode for many situations. And I'd expect the Apple Bluetooth Headphone to make a comeback. In a big way. Think "Her."
  • Always wanted to try a Mac and OS X, but given my accessibility needs -- poor eyesight -- I have to use a Linux or Windows desktop that have the appropriate accessibility support. So Linux it has been, as I am not a Windows guy on the PC. Windows Phone is a complete-different story. I think as a concept it is what the early 2000 Apple would have done had they gone mobile. Elegant, simple to use, strong first party support, independent, and for people that just want their stuff to work day after day without hassle. You know, like Linux. These days, one wishes Apple would be more... Apple, or even innovative and quality-driven like Nokia, rather than more and more like Samsung: More profitable, and more boring than ever. Nowadays, for Apple 'good enough' is good enough. Best or excellent is no longer part of the vocabulary.
  • Ever heard of VoiceOver?:) I use exclusively Apple products, and I am completly blind. No problem, and I have had a much better and easier tech-life after I started using Apple stuff. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yeah, there is VoiceOver (as Oystein points out) and so much more as far as Accessibility options. You really need to give OS X another look. Apple is at the forefront of companies that assure use of its OS for everyone. See this website: https://www.apple.com/accessibility/mac/#mn_p
  • I would revise the article and correct a few syntax mistakes and repetitions, if I were you. It was written quickly and not revised before publishing.
  • Happy 13th Birthday, OS X!!
  • Those 13 years certainly have gone by quickly... I was quite happy to jump on board with OS X Jaguar (10.2) and have been enjoying the ride ever since. The OS has always very much complemented the way I work. While I'd have to say that 10.9 Mavericks has given me more problems than any other version, I like the general direction that Apple is going with it. I'm sure it'll further stablilize and continue to adapt to new technologies. Happy birthday, OS X!
  • Productivity is what an OS is all about to me. But along with that I feel like it should be fun and allow a person to show their individuality. Make the OS theirs in a way a little different than every other OS X. So in time I would like to see them do things like allow the wallpaper to be applied as the background and login. They could start by just having the login screen show whatever wallpaper is set as the background before enabling different images(iOS). I'd like to see the notification center(NC) get out of the way of the user. Right now you click and the NC opens up sliding the screen to the left. The entire screen becomes un-usable. Instead I would like to have the NC become transparent and the notifications come in and just hang there transparenet above the wallpaper but under the apps. This way the user is free to act on the notifications when they need/want to and it doesn't interrupt their workflow.