Mac's new OS: Seven years in the making

After several false starts, abandoned product plans and the return of its prodigal CEO, Apple is finally releasing its next-generation operating system.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science. Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
9 min read

On the eve of unveiling its latest generation of Macintoshes, Apple Computer told reporters of something even greater on the horizon: a new version of the Mac operating system that would add a bevy of groundbreaking features.

That was seven years ago.

Now--after several false starts, abandoned product plans, numerous code names and the return of prodigal CEO Steve Jobs--Apple is finally releasing its next-generation operating system.

Although Mac OS X will likely be embraced by the legions of Apple faithful when it is launched Saturday, its history can serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of an engineering malady known as "feature creep"--a seemingly compulsive need to add functions at the expense of deadlines and other larger goals.

"Anytime they saw something sexy it had to go into the OS," said Jeffrey Tarter, publisher of the software industry newsletter Softletter. "There were little groups all over Apple doing fun things that had no earthly application to Apple's product line."

What resulted was a vicious cycle: As the addition of features pushed back deadlines, Apple was compelled to promise still more functions to justify the costly delays. Moreover, this Sisyphean pattern persisted at a time when the company could scarcely afford to miss a step.

In the second half of the 1990s, Apple was facing the most jarring changes since its founding in 1976, remaking itself for the Internet age while undergoing major management changes under no fewer than three chief executives in as many years--Michael Spindler, Gil Amelio and then Jobs. At the same time, Apple was desperately trying to regain market share that had been lost to the Microsoft Windows juggernaut.

Mac OS X--which stands for version No. 10 of the operating system--was supposed to right the course for Apple. Yet reviews of the new OS have been mixed, and some question whether the final product was worth the prolonged wait.

A face-lift?
"It's another face-lift," said Jef Raskin, who was part of the original Mac development team but left Apple in 1982 amid a well-documented dispute with Jobs. The new operating system's developers "haven't given Apple any ammunition to improve its market share."

The long road
Mac OS X is the first complete overhaul of Apple's operating system since the first one was launched 17 years ago.

Early 1984
Apple releases System 1.0.

Early 1985
System 2.0 released.

Early 1986
System 3.0 released.

Early 1987
System 4.0 released.

System 6.0.2 released.

Apple releases System 7.0, its first OS with 32-bit addressing and the ability to recognize more than 8MB of main memory.

March 1994
Apple first discusses next-generation OS, code-named Copland.

Late 1994
System 7.5 released.

August 1995
Apple Senior Vice President David Nagel tells Macworld Expo crowd that Copland will be in Mac owners' hands by mid-1996.

November 1995
First beta, or test, version of Copland released to developers.

Late 1996
Apple cancels Copland and promises new OS strategy to be unveiled in early 1997.

December 1996
Apple buys Next Software.

January 1997
Apple details "Rhapsody," a new next-generation operating system that features a Unix core, pre-emptive multitasking and protected memory.

Apple releases Mac OS 8.0 with some of the features that had been seen in demonstrations of Copland.

May 1998
At the Worldwide Developers Conference, interim CEO Steve Jobs announces a revised Mac OS strategy and promises that Mac OS X, with pre-emptive multitasking and memory protection, will ship in fall 1999.

Late 1998
Mac OS 8.5 released.

Early 1999
Apple releases Mac OS X Server, containing many elements of Rhapsody.

January 2000
Jobs, now CEO, announces Mac OS X will reach its beta stage in spring with a "commercial release" in the summer.

May 2000
Jobs announces at Worldwide Developers Conference that Mac OS X will ship as a public beta in late summer, with final release in January 2001.

September 2000
Apple releases public beta of Mac OS X.

January 2001
Jobs sets March 24 as the date Mac OS X will hit store shelves.

Sources: Apple Confidential: The Real Story of Apple Computer Inc., staff reports.

Until the most recent quarter, Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple had enjoyed a renaissance of renewed profitability despite the delays, thanks in large part to the popularity of the iMac and other hardware innovations. The company hopes to parallel that success with its new OS. Along with technical enhancements, such as a feature that prevents a complete system meltdown when a program crashes, Apple is introducing a sleek new graphical design. And unlike some of Apple's earlier visions for a next-generation operating system, Mac OS X will be able to run most existing Mac programs. However, the operating system has some shortcomings, such as a lack of support for some of the more popular media technologies of recent years, such as playing DVDs and recording CDs.

"These will be in the single digits, but there are a couple hundred new features" eventually expected with the new system, Phil Schiller, Apple's vice president of worldwide marketing, said in a recent interview.

Indeed, considering the path Apple has taken, just shipping OS X is a milestone. Mac OS X delivers many of the same features Apple intended for its original next-generation operating system, code-named Copland, whose roots go back to 1994.

At that time, archrival Microsoft was creating an OS code-named Chicago, which eventually became Windows 95. To counter it, Apple engineers vowed that the company would come out with its own next-generation operating system.

"The next step is to deliver a powerful new software foundation that--while familiar--makes it far easier for people to use a personal computer on their own terms," Apple Senior Vice President David Nagel said in May 1995.

The original mandate for Copland sounded simple enough: Extend the Apple operating system with features to make it more robust, such as adding protected memory and the ability of the operating system to do several complex tasks at the same time.

Scrapped plans
But Copland became bloated as Apple sought to add more and more features. At the same time, the company was struggling with its money-bleeding Newton handheld device and other problems. By late 1995, Apple was considered ripe for a takeover.

That's when the company appointed Amelio to replace Spindler as CEO and to shake things up. Amelio came to the job with high marks, having served as head of chipmaker National Semiconductor and as a member of Apple's board.

By late 1996, though, Apple knew it needed another approach. Rumors swirled at Macworld Expo in August of that year that Apple might link up with Be, a computer company run by former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassee. Be had its own operating system and ran on the same PowerPC chips that were used in the Macintosh.

In the end, however, Apple decided to go with the ultimate veteran: its co-founder.

The timing seemed perfect. Since his ouster as chief executive of Apple in 1985, Jobs had become a billionaire while heading the digital motion picture company Pixar. Still, he remained enamored with the desktop computer, developing a black, cube-shaped machine at his other company, Next Software.

Five days before Christmas 1996, Apple stunned the world of technology by announcing that it was buying Next in a $425 million deal that would include the company's Unix-based operating system and Jobs himself. At first, Jobs was billed as an adviser to Amelio.

With the acquisition under way, Apple quickly announced a shift in strategy: It would continue to upgrade the existing Mac operating system while moving ahead with a new Unix-based core code-named Rhapsody, based on Next's OS.

The dual strategy mirrored a kind of split personality within Apple as the company sought to preserve its previous software work while developing the new technologies from Next. Apple began a two-tiered course in which developers would work on releases for the existing OS, which the company would continue to update, and write new code for Rhapsody.

A moving target
If the strategy was clear to Apple's engineers, it often confused those outside the company as the Microsoft empire continued to expand.

"The longer they wait, the more the moving target (Windows) pulls ahead and the more panic there is to make sure everything on the competitive checklist is there," Softletter's Tarter said.

Finally, in May 1998, Apple streamlined its plans, renamed the next-generation operating system Mac OS X, and pledged to have it in consumers' hands by fall 1999.

"Rhapsody was going in the right direction, but it didn't go far enough," Jobs said at the time. Much of Rhapsody ended up becoming Apple's Mac OS X Server, designed to offer some of the same features of Mac OS X but intended to run on corporate servers.

In January 2000, Jobs previewed an early version of Mac OS X publicly for the first time before a crowd at Macworld Expo in San Francisco. He showed off a number of new graphical features, most notably a revamped version of the main Finder program as well as the Dock, a new toolbar that sits at the bottom of the screen.

Far from just another software feature, the Dock is emblematic of Apple's trademark elegant design and the enormous engineering resources it is willing to devote to every detail. Ostensibly, the Dock is a toolbar at the bottom of the screen to hold frequently used documents, programs and folders; but Apple went the extra mile to make it unlike any technology of its kind.

If a video is minimized to the Dock, it continues playing. Photographs visibly shrink into the Dock, like a genie entering a bottle. Items on the Dock can also be made minuscule, only to be magnified as the cursor passes over them.

While demonstrations of Mac OS X at various Apple events last year drew audible praise from the crowds, Mac loyalists also complained that the new software was not Mac-like enough. The company responded by reincorporating the Apple menu and offering an option that makes the windows in the new software behave much like those in the old Mac OS.

Apple also decided that it needed more feedback. In May 2000, Jobs announced that Mac OS X would ship first in a "public beta" form later that summer, rather than as the commercial release that had been planned. Then, in September, Apple delivered the public beta as a $29.95 CD. Four months later Jobs set March 24 as the release date for the final version 1.0.

Too early or too late?
Tarter considers the whole project a lesson in managing an upgrade.

"If you have a really compelling OS, you can afford to let it slip," Tarter said, but "waiting seven years is just absurd."

Apple should have recognized that the project was out of control much sooner, Tarter said. "Either it was too ambitious or it was mismanaged," he said. "It might have made more sense for them to prioritize the few features that really made a difference and gotten them out the door and then dealt with the more advanced stuff later."

As long a road as it has been to get to Mac OS X, some analysts assert it is still being released prematurely, without support for some of Apple's latest hardware and software.

"Will it be released too soon? My answer would be yes," Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal said.

Apple has painted itself into a corner and is counting on the high-margin sales that Mac OS X will provide, Deal said. "After an unprofitable quarter it is important to release a profitable, high-margin product," he said.

The question is whether what's inside OS X will be enough to prompt existing Apple owners to continue to buy new Macs. More important, analysts say, is whether it will allow Apple to expand its customer base.

"There are aspects of Mac OS X that will appeal to Windows users," Deal said. "Will it appeal enough to get them to leave an operating system they are comfortable with? That remains to be seen."

Developer support is another critical area for Apple. Although hundreds of developers have committed themselves to porting their applications to OS X, Apple executives have conceded it will take time. The first applications will appear this spring; many more are targeted for later months.

Microsoft will bring its Office software suite to Mac OS X, although the product won't be out until at least the third quarter. Adobe Systems has pledged to develop OS X-optimized versions of its software, but has offered no firm timetable.

Raskin, who is now a computer consultant and author, gives Jobs credit for introducing innovative new machines, such as the new Titanium PowerBook and the original iMac, but said Apple's system software isn't worth the upgrade.

"There are an awful lot of minuses," he said, "and I don't think they've given us enough pluses."