OS X turns VII

When I was seven years old, I wanted to be an astronaut. Of course, I also wanted to eat cake for every meal, spend all my time building LEGOs, and not have a haircut that made me look like a mushroom. Twenty-one years later, I’m living at least two of those dreams. Not too shabby.

A lot can change in just a few years: take OS X, for example. On March 24, 2001, Apple released OS X 10.0, code-named Cheetah. It was the first ground-up overhaul of the Mac OS since its introduction in 1984, and it brought with it design changes that would shake the platform for years to come: BSD-based underpinnings, true preemptive multitasking, and, of course, the Aqua interface. Not only did it usher in the era of computing in which we now live, but it brought Apple along for the ride.

Consider this: when Apple released OS X in March 2001, Apple Stores didn't even exist yet; the first pair, in California and Virginia, wouldn’t open their doors until two months later. Nobody lined up for 10.0’s release, as they did for more recent versions like Tiger and Leopard. The iPod was still in development and wouldn’t be released until October of that year. The iPhone wasn’t even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’s eye. Apple still relied on PowerPC chips from Motorola and IBM, and the most advanced of those ran at 733MHz on a G4 processor that was already getting a bit long in the tooth—the G5 wouldn’t appear for another two years. Then again, the retail version of OS X 10.0 went for $129, which just goes to show you that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

While the first version of 10.0 brought with it a lot of improvements to the underpinnings of how OS X worked, the niceties were often lacking; it was the computer equivalent of settling a new frontier. 10.0, for example, didn’t even let you watch then newfangled DVDs or burn CDs, and the OS was buggy and, despite its feline namesake, slow. To top it all off, the change to an entirely new OS meant that existing Mac applications wouldn't run in OS X, except in the slower Classic emulation environment, until the developers were able to port them. One of the most thorough chroniclers of OS X’s history, Ars Technica writer and Macworld contributor John Siracusa concluded, in his 2001 review of 10.0:

Mac OS X shows tremendous promise, which is a nice way of saying that the 10.0 release is not quite ready for prime time. This is most certainly an early adopter’s OS release. […] Unlike previous articles, this one was written almost entirely in OS X. I forced myself to do this, to some degree, and I certainly spent most of my time in classic applications like BBEdit and Photoshop even when running OS X. But the experience was at least tolerable, which is more than can be said for my experience with earlier releases.

My experience mirrored John’s in those early months: my PowerMac G3 was set up to dual boot OS 9 and OS X for at least a year after 10.0’s release. As much as I wanted to make OS X my full time OS, it simply wasn't feasible or advisable in those days. It wasn't until after I got out of college that I found myself able to rely on OS X for all of my computing needs.

But now, seven years later, a thriving metropolis has grown up around those first sparse settlements. Non-native applications are now a thing of the past and we've even gone through yet another complete transition, this time in hardware, with barely a blink of the eye—a testament to our hardy frontier stock. Today, OS X has become the truly modern operating system we were promised lo those many years ago. And with it, Apple's popularity has steadily risen. Though many might pin Apple’s success of the recent past solely on the popularity of the iPod, I argue that none of that would have been possible without OS X setting the stage. No matter how many customers may have been swayed towards the Mac by their iPods whispering sweet promises of simplicity and elegance into their ears, I don’t think a single one of them would have made the leap, were they not subsequently impressed by OS X’s ability to deliver on those promises.

So, happy birthday, OS X. You’ve changed a lot in seven years—you’ve got yourself some flashy new interface changes, automated backup capability, and heck, even DVD-playing and CD-burning. Now it’s time to ditch the bowl cut and get ready for the next seven years.

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