Mac OS X: Apple’s ‘NeXT’ Generation Operating System And How The Software Came To Be

FEATURE: 03.26.21 – It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since a new way of computing on the Mac came roaring onto the scene like a mighty… cat (if you will).

Mac OS X — the tenth major release (thus, the “X”) of Apple’s operating system for the Mac — was released to the masses two decades ago this week on March 24, 2001. Described as, “the most important piece of software” in the history of Apple by the website, Cult of Mac, it would become a game changer not only for Apple’s hardware and devices but for the Cupertino, California-based company as well.

The startup screen in an early version of Mac OS X. (Photo: Killian Bell / Cult of Mac)

Cult of Mac noted that the technological advances found in Mac OS X formed the backbone of Apple’s other operating systems which paved the way for the company’s post “PC” (as it were) era of non-Mac related hardware: from devices such as the iPad and iPhone to wearables like the Apple Watch.

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Mac OS: The Next Generation

Mac OS X — which Apple described as, “the next generation Macintosh operating system” — was unveiled by Steve Jobs at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, California on January 5, 2000.

Jobs, as interim Apple CEO, demonstrated the new software during his keynote address to an audience of over 4,000 people present for the event. In a company press release issued on the day of the expo, the “iCEO” (what the late Apple co-founder called himself at the time) was quoted for saying that Apple’s innovation was leading the way in personal computer operating systems once again.

According to Apple in its press release, Mac OS X was a completely new implementation that featured state-of-the-art technology throughout. One of these groundbreaking technologies that the company created was a new graphical user interface (GUI), a feature which it called Aqua. At its core was Apple’s advanced operating system kernel known as Darwin.

Apple indicated in its press release that Mac OS X would be gradually rolled out over a 12 month period to replace Mac OS 9, and, beginning in early 2001, would come pre-loaded as the standard operating system on all new Macs.

The company had intended to have Mac OS X ready by the Summer of 2000 and released commercially to be sold as a software product in stores (the retail Apple Store did not yet exist at that time). However, the next generation operating system for the Mac would not be available for sale until the Spring of the following year.

And, unlike the free yearly OS updates that today’s Mac users are accustomed to, Mac OS X cost $129 to purchase.

Aqua: Apple’s Slick New GUI

Aqua — which Apple described as, “a major advancement in personal computer user interfaces” — was unmatched and unlike anything ever seen before in an operating system for the Mac (or any other competing OS on the market, for that matter) and this slick new GUI was one of the primary features that made Mac OS X so advanced.

According to Macworld magazine in a special feature detailing the evolution of Mac OS X, while the new Aqua interface was pretty, full of translucency, and trendy 3-D effects? “Cheetah” (10.0), the original version, was terribly slow (ironically, since an actual cheetah is literally the fastest animal on the planet!). As the publication noted, nobody in their right mind during those early years was deleting their Mac OS 9 partition and committing full time to the new operating system because doing so would result in a perfectly speedy Mac feeling like it was dipped in molasses.

My first experience with Apple’s new Aqua interface came from “Puma” (10.1), the second version of Mac OS X, which( fortunately for me) left a sweeter taste in my mouth (so to speak) as the updated software, released by Apple only seven months later, addressed the many quirks and shortcomings of “Cheetah” (especially its issues with speed and performance).

As a long time user of Macs who got his start using System 7 on a Macintosh Performa 630CD (my family’s first-ever computer), which had an antiquated graphical user interface in comparison, Aqua was truly stunning to behold with all of its eye candy (or should I say, iCandy?). However, I (too) didn’t commit myself to using Mac OS X full time in those early years as I found the new operating system to be more of a novelty than anything else because in order to use my existing software, which was designed for Mac OS 9, the applications had to run in the Classic environment (where they would more often than not act finicky or sometimes crash). As a result, I tended to use it just to enjoy the visual experience rather than to enhance computing on my Mac.

The opportunity to experience Aqua (and everything else that the next generation operating system for the Mac had to offer) did not come at a high price, however, as I got my copy of Mac OS X for only… $19.95 (via the “Mac OS X Up-To-Date” program)!

The ‘X’ Factor: NeXTSTEP & UNIX

As far as how Apple’s “next generation Macintosh operating system” came to be, it was the acquisition of a fledgling software company called NeXT Software, Inc. that would change the game for Apple.

NeXT was established in 1985 by Steve Jobs shortly after the Apple co-founder was ousted from his own company (which had to do with, ironically, of all things… the original Macintosh computer). According to Cult of Mac, they made beautiful computers but the machines didn’t sell very well. As a result, Jobs decided to quit the hardware side of the business to focus solely on the company’s software: the NeXTSTEP operating system.

In the late 1990s, Apple’s older operating systems for the Mac (System 7, Mac OS 8, and Mac OS 9) were, as explained by Cult of Mac, steadily losing ground to Microsoft which had seemingly figured out the formula with Windows 95 and Windows 98. In 1996, under its chief executive officer at the time, Gil Amelio, Apple made the desperate move to purchase NeXT.

As part of Apple’s acquisition of NeXT, Jobs was made an advisor, bringing back the deposed Apple co-founder to the very company that forced him out more than a decade earlier over the Mac.

Jobs, in his advisory role, would incorporate a number of technologies from NeXT into the Mac. The UNIX base of Mac OS X, for instance, was incorporated from NeXTSTEP. The acquisition of Jobs’s software company was, as Cult of Mac described it, “a big shakeup” that would transform Apple’s operating system (and Apple) into what it is today: MacOS (how it has been branded since then).

Related Reading: from the PowerBook Central archives (October 2007) – “‘The “Wow” Starts Now’ For Apple, Inc.” (a feature story on Mac OS X v10.5 “Leopard”).

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