Revisiting the first OS X beta, Kodiak

It's kind of a bear.

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A little over 15 years ago, Apple released a bear into the wilds. Well, technically, it released Mac OS X into the wilds with its public beta program, but since this preview version of OS X was codenamed “Kodiak,” a species of bear found in Alaska, I think I can be forgiven for spicing up the opening sentence to an article about an old beta version of an operating system.

Besides, for many this new OS was as unfamiliar and frightening as if you found a large brown bear sitting on your desk, although if said bear was clothed in pinstripes like OS X was, perhaps the reaction would have been different. Especially if you’d been charged $29.95 for it. Wait, let me take a step back—which is probably shrewd advice when there’s a damned great bear on your desk.

When Apple finally, finally got its act together to create a successor OS to the descendants of the System that powered the original Macintosh, it released previews initially only to developers, but in September 2000 it let anyone with a compatible Mac and thirty bucks to spare install and muck around with this strange and alien new OS—ahead of its proper release in March 2001. That’s just what I’ve been doing for this week’s Think Retro.

And it’s weird to be back in the early days of OS X. Indeed, it’s almost as odd now—now that we’ve cycled back to a much flatter interface aesthetic, as it was coming from the crisp, rectilinear Platinum skin we’d gotten used to in Mac OS 9—to boot the installer and see the Aqua interface in all its pomp for the first time. Install, reboot, configure, and this is the desktop that greets you.

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You see heavy drop-shadows (even on menubar text), bright colors, big, bubbly buttons, and that pinstripe pattern, boldly splashed across the window and menu bar. You also, in the menu bar, see the Apple logo in the center, which is clearly madness of the first water. Happily, it was repositioned to the correct location before OS X properly shipped.

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I’d completely forgotten about the Music Player app that Apple shipped with OS X before iTunes came along. It was very basic—just the option of playing an audio CD or a playlist of MP3s (though it couldn’t create them itself)—although given the clamor to slim down iTunes in recent years, perhaps there are those among you who would gladly install this in its place! (That globby, brushed metal controller, though…)

The things that amuse me as I go through this public beta, though, aren’t things about the OS itself, its apps or even its UI design (which spent the next few years by degrees stepping further and further back from this early extravaganza). No, what pleases me is how in this OS, this OS that I still think of as essentially modern in the same way as I suspect I’ll never stop thinking things described as happening in the ’90s “must have been quite recent then,” there are lots of telltale little hints that it’s actually from another era.

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Above, for example, is the list of search engines built into Sherlock. Never mind that these days few of us will never bother to use multiple search engines, the one we do use isn’t mentioned, and those that are have faded almost completely from memory. (I was always an Excite boy, pre-Google, I remember now.)

Or what about the address book, which not only has a field for a pager number but places it above the field for mobile phone.

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Or the System Preference pane for QuickTime—ooooh, check out those phat tabbed bars!—which has defaulted to a connection speed of 28.8/33.6K modem.

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Or even the fact that the public beta of OS X loaded some trailers for movies onto your hard disk, including The Emperor’s New Groove, whose cel-animated style reminds me of nothing so much as the films from my childhood.

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(In his review of the beta, John Siracusa wrote that it requires nearly 800MB of disk space, but of that, 160MB “is taken up by QuickTime trailers for various questionable movies. Even minus that 160MB, I suspect many curmudgeons will still holler about the ‘bloated’ install size.” 800MB. Ah, 2000!)

I guess it’s all a bit like the PowerBook G3 I happened to install the Public Beta on. At a glance, you might think it’s a modern computer; it’s only when you examine it and see details such as ADB and SCSI ports that you get hints that it’s anything but—as I was reminded during the day I spent trying to get screenshots off the thing.

Often when I finish writing up one of the installments of Think Retro I wish my life allowed more time for playing with the hardware or software I’ve just been talking about, but on this occasion I’m happy to close the lid of the PowerBook and get back to my actually modern machines. It was too untamed, too bare and rough around the edges for me. Kodiak was a strange beast, but it ushered in a new age, the age of the big cats—and they had me purring like a kitten.

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