Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Mac OS X Turns Twenty

Cupertino, California — March 21, 2001 — Apple today announced that beginning this Saturday, March 24, customers can buy Mac OS X in retail stores around the world.

So began the press release twenty years ago. By this point, Mac OS X Server was two years old and Apple had been showing off beta versions of the consumer product to developers for a year and a half. Even the radical Aqua user interface was old news by the time Cheetah dropped in 2001.

This first version was, by all accounts, pretty hard to live with day to day. John Siracusa, Ars Technica:

Mac OS X is slower than Mac OS 9 on the same hardware. The interface is less responsive overall. All classic applications take a minor speed hit. RAM usage is considerable due to the “double-OS” nature of the classic environment. Despite a superior VM system, OS X can and does get into trouble when the paging activity starts to build on systems with close to the minimum-required 128MB RAM.

Jason Snell, Macworld:

Apple bought [NeXT] in December of 1996. Mac OS X 10.0 shipped in March of 2001. As powerful and sophisticated as NextStep was, it took the new Apple software organization — led by NeXT’s Avie Tevanian — more than four years from acquisition to a “completed” version of Mac OS X. (And stopping the clock 20 years ago this week is probably unfair. I’d mark the end of the Mac OS X transition as April 2002, when Steve Jobs held a funeral for Mac OS 9 because OS X was finally good enough.)

Rocky as that first version apparently was — and I say “apparently” because the first Mac I used ran 10.2 Jaguar — it set into motion Apple’s renaissance and enabled its current suite of products. The iPhone, as Jobs famously said, “runs OS X” — albeit a forked, stripped-down, mobile optimized version ported to a different CPU architecture. But that decision made possible Apple’s current lineup: iPadOS, watchOS, tvOS,1 the HomePod’s operating system, and even the dedicated OS that runs the Touch Bar. All of these things were built on the work that began with the iPhone which, in turn, was built on Mac OS X.

“Mac OS X” is no longer. In 2012, Apple dropped the “Mac” from the name to much consternation; in 2016, the “Mac” came back and the X was dropped, to form “macOS”, which I capitalize differently because I think it looks goofy. That set the template for last year’s big shift — MacOS 10.something was no longer, and it is now at version 11. This comes at the same time as Apple is moving away from Intel’s x86 processors and onto its in-house ARM-based systems.

And none of this would have happened if not for Mac OS X’s origin at NeXT, Apple’s acquisition of which brought NextStep and brought back Steve Jobs.

Mac OS X is, in many ways, the reason Apple grew into the gigantic company that it is today. It took the right leader in Jobs, who died ten years ago this October, and the right software foundation in NextStep, along with hundreds of committed designers and developers to rebuild a has-been company. The story of Mac OS X is the story of rejuvenation of historic scale.

See Also: John Siracusa’s fifteen year history of reviewing Mac OS X.


  1. The first version of the Apple TV was based on a fork of Tiger↩︎