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OS X's ten most innovative features

When Apple took the wraps off Mac OS X a decade ago, it clearly marked a big leap forward from the old Mac operating system. But as Mac users installed that first beta disk, it wasn’t exactly clear how big a leap OS X would turn out to be. With ten years of updates, innovations, and enhancements under our belt, we can now see how far we’ve come since Steve Jobs released the Mac OS X Public Beta at the Apple Expo in Paris on September 13, 2000. We now rely on OS X features that early OS adopters probably couldn’t even conceive of a decade ago.

But which OS X innovations have been the most significant for the Mac and its users? We put our heads together and came up with a list of ten features—for the tenth anniversary of the OS X beta’s release—that we consider to be the most significant contributions to the Mac experience.

Time Machine

Computing is risky business: All hard drives will fail eventually, and people accidentally delete files. Introduced with OS X 10.5, Time Machine was hugely important for one simple reason: It made backing up your data easy—and therefore, something you were much more likely to do.

Sure, the 3D interface may be a little cheesy, and Time Machine can slow down your system. It’s also not always easy to find a file when you need it. But Time Machine makes backing up a given. And on top of that, Time Machine backups are great when you’re migrating to a new Mac. Those are reasons alone to celebrate this OS X capability.—JONATHAN SEFF

Native PDF support

Apple’s Preview app is the visible face of Mac OS X’s system-level support for the PDF format. Mac users can easily create PDF files with any program that supports the Print command. Because PDF files recreate the layout of the original document, saving files electronically is now as convenient as printing them, except you’re free to save, e-mail, or embed them in other documents without losing their unique look.

Now at version 5, Preview has undergone numerous improvements over time, but its Annotations toolbar, easy selection of columns, and image editing capabilities emphasize its advantage for users.—JACKIE DOVE

Spotlight

Introduced as the desktop search successor to Apple’s Sherlock in OS 10.4, Spotlight made waves for its metadata index and instant-search capabilities. The utility’s in-depth search allowed users to search inside their files, rather than by name alone. And with Leopard, introducing the calculation of simple math equations and dictionary searches, Spotlight has only grown as a reference and lookup tool.—SERENITY CALDWELL

iChat

IM clients existed before Apple folded iChat into Mac OS X 10.2 in 2002. But iChat upped the ante by integrating with the operating system’s address book and mail applications, and an updated version included in Panther added video conferencing capabilities as well. The inclusion of a built-in chat client gave OS X a notable productivity boost—one we experienced first-hand in the Macworld office. We suddenly had a way to communicate with far-flung colleagues and contributors in a way that was more immediate than e-mail and more convenient than the telephone. (Instead of dropping what you were doing to make a phone call, you could keep working in one window while conducting an iChat in the other.) The Mac has made notable in-roads in the workplace during the past decade, and we suspect the presence of a built-in, full-featured messaging tool is one of the reasons why.—PHILIP MICHAELS

The Classic Environment and Boot Camp

The Classic environment and Boot Camp are very different technologies, but they serve (or, in the case of Classic, served) the same essential purpose—provide the technological safety net and the psychological peace of mind that allowed millions of people to make the switch to Mac OS X.

For most “classic” Mac users, the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X went far more smoothly than even the most optimistic among us expected. But it never would have been so had it not been for the Classic environment, a hardware-abstraction layer that let users run OS 9 applications within Mac OS X, side-by-side with native OS X software. Without the Classic environment, upgrading to Mac OS X would have meant either doing without your favorite software until it was updated for the new OS, or dumping all your existing software and starting over—a prospect only slightly more appealing than simply giving in and switching to Windows. The Classic environment wasn’t perfect—some OS 9 apps acted a bit quirky when run within Classic, and a few didn’t function at all—but for the most part it worked well and worked invisibly, tiding many a Mac user over until one day, as if by magic, it was no longer needed.

Boot Camp has fulfilled a similar role for Windows users. Since its debut (in beta form in early 2006, with an official release in late 2007), Boot Camp has offered Windows users the assurance that if they decide to switch to the Mac, they can still run all their Windows software—or, in the worst-case scenario, that if they end up hating OS X, they can permanently boot into Windows and just use their Mac as a fully supported Windows PC. (The latter option makes Boot Camp more compelling for many Windows switchers than virtualization solutions such as Fusion and Parallels.) Of course, after making the switch, many Windows users end up finding suitable—or superior—OS X replacements for their favorite software, and become full-time Mac OS X users. But without Boot Camp, they never would have been in the position to not boot into Windows.—DAN FRAKES

Developer Tools

Apple’s developer tools are probably the top candidate for the title of “most important technology that the majority of Mac users will never touch.” Back in the heady days of the classic Mac OS, developers who wanted to write software for the Mac were dependent on integrated development environments (IDEs) such as Metrowerks’s CodeWarrior. When OS X rolled around, Apple seemed to have realized that in order for its future platform to thrive, it couldn’t afford to have the means for creating great software controlled by someone else. Hence, the introduction of Apple’s own developer tools alongside Mac OS X. Included in the package was an IDE—Project Builder—that was a tweaked version of the IDE that came with NeXT, the OS whose acquisition laid much of the foundation for OS X. In 2003, Project Builder became the now familiar Xcode.

Controlling the tools used to build software gave Apple a huge edge: the company could make sure developers were able to take advantage of the new, compelling features that Apple rolled out in each successive OS X update. The company positioned Xcode and the other development tools as an investment in the future of its platform, distributing them for free along with every copy of OS X—that was a marked contrast to IDEs like CodeWarrior, which often ran hundreds of dollars. While Xcode may not be a technology that most Mac users are intimately familiar with, it’s the software that makes possible pretty much every application you use on your Mac, and that’s no small deal.—DAN MOREN

Unix underpinnings and a modern core

The Unix underpinnings provided Mac OS X with something long lacking in the Mac OS: stability and performance. Prior versions of the Mac OS lacked protected memory, which meant that when one app crashed, the Mac itself usually crashed. Multitasking performance was also far from stellar, as the OS was written without multitasking in mind.

Mac OS X changed all that, thanks to its modern core and Unix foundation layer. Typical users may never directly see the Unix side of Mac OS X, nor even care that it’s there…but every time they use their Mac, they benefit from that core: multiple programs run simultaneously, all playing nicely with each other; when a program crashes, only that program crashes. With the advent of Mac OS X, multi-daily reboots became a thing of the past, and were soon measured in days or weeks. Thanks to this solid core, Mac OS X and its programs are stable, responsive, and work well with one another.—ROB GRIFFITHS

Exposé

As displays got larger through the years and Mac OS X’s multitasking features became even more robust, the desire to keep more windows and applications running concurrently could often lead to “window-itis”—the condition of getting buried under one’s virtual workspace. When Apple released Mac OS X 10.3 in 2003, it showcased its unique knack for tackling usability problems like this with the introduction of Exposé.

Exposé was arguably the first significant attempt by a major OS maker to improve window management since Windows 95 (or perhaps WindowShade in System 8). When Command-Tab and repeatedly hiding or minimizing waves of windows were no longer enough, Exposé offered a refreshing bird’s-eye view of all the applications, or just multiple windows in a single application, that were currently open, as well as the files on your desktop. The feature debuted with just three modes, accessible by keyboard shortcuts and mouse gestures: All Windows, Application Windows, and Show Desktop. For some, Exposé was largely a novelty or a fun trick to show friends why the Mac is cool. For others, Exposé was a window management game changer, a new lease on being productive that helped proved why the Mac is great.

Apple eventually added multi-touch trackpad gestures in Leopard, as well as some other minor perks in Snow Leopard, to make Exposé more accessible. But the feature has largely remained unchanged—though useful as ever—since its introduction in 2003.—DAVID CHARTIER

Bonjour

Thanks to Bonjour, it’s a lot easier to connect to printers, servers, other computers, and other devices over a network. Originally introduced in 2002 as Rendezvous in Mac OS X 10.2 and renamed Bonjour with the 2005 release of Tiger, Bonjour is Apple’s version of the Zero Configuration Networking (Zeroconf) technology. When devices on a network are using Bonjour, there’s no need to mess with confusing network settings and controls. Bonjour devices automatically make themselves available on the network, and the technology resolves any addressing issues for you.

Bonjour has a wide variety of implementations; it can be used to connect your Mac to a printer, or you can connect to another Mac to share files. There’s even a Windows version of Bonjour, so your Mac can connect to a Windows PC. Software programs like iChat and iPhoto can use Bonjour, too—the most common software use of Bonjour is in iTunes. When you connect someone who’s sharing their music, you’re witnessing Bonjour at work.—ROMAN LOYOLA

Smart Folders

The Finder evolved as a way to put a friendly face on the scary world of computer file systems, but as the way we’ve used computers has evolved, our file systems have gotten out of control. Smart Folders (and its cousin, Smart Mailboxes) was Apple’s way of letting users tease order out of an unruly set of personal files. Using the power of the Spotlight search engine (also added as a part of Mac OS X 10.4), Smart Folders are essentially saved searches. Tell your Mac that you want to see all the Word files you’ve created in the past 10 days, and boom, there’s a folder full of those files. For many users, Smart Folders make it okay to toss all your stuff in one big folder rather than using a complex, folder-based filing system. After all, Smart Folders can do the organization for you.—JASON SNELL

Also Worth a Mention

Limiting yourself to just 10 noteworthy features for something as complex as Mac OS X means you’re going to wind up with some noteworthy omissions. We had several features that just missed making our list, including the Dock (and its clever way of keeping the applications you need close at hand) and Automator (which demystified script-writing for most users). We’re also fans of Quick Look, one of OS X’s best time-saving features for getting a glimpse of a file with a simple stroke of the space bar. And we debated including OS X’s support for Intel-built processors as well.

But that’s just our list of OS X features worth celebrating on this anniversary. We’re sure we’ve overlooked a couple of your favorites; let us know what’s on your list of OS X’s greatest contributions.

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