10 for X: A decade of Mac OS X

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On March 24, 2001, the iMac was less than three years old, the iPod was still more than six months away, and Macs ran at astounding speeds of up to 733MHz. But most importantly, Apple on that day released the first official version of Mac OS X, changing the future of its platform forever.

Though nobody knew it at the time, the release, codenamed Cheetah, was the first step in transforming Apple from a company poised on the verge of disaster into the second most valuable company in the world.

Were you to engage in a flight of fancy, you might call Mac OS X the deliverance for the tenacious few that had held onto Apple in the dark times, through the era when the Mac product line had proliferated into a writhing, seething mass of cryptic models in a seeming attempt to out-PC the PC makers. Mac OS X was a sign that the direction of the company had really and truly changed, after years of failed attempts to modernize the Mac OS.

The coup of Mac OS X, more than anything else, is that it shipped. The road to a new version of the Mac OS was littered with the unmarked graves of projects that had gone before: Taligent. Copland. Gershwin.

Despite the early release of a public beta with its own radical changes, that first shipping version of Mac OS X was far from perfect: It couldn't play DVDs or burn CDs; performance was often sluggish; and the interface was distinctly different—and in many ways cruder—than its predecessor. But Apple does as it always does: it rolls. And over the following years, the company issued update after update, both minor and major, improving the system in a multitude of ways while slowly winning over converts from both the PC and the classic Mac OS.

Ten years later, Mac OS X is still by no means perfect. Ask any Mac user, and I guarantee that, without hesitation, they’ll draw up a list of things that annoy them about the operating system they use every day. But were you to plot the satisfaction of most Mac users on an entirely unscientific graph, I'd boldly wager you'd find it trended upward over time.

To me, there's no greater testament of Mac OS X's success than my own friends and family. In the '90s, the majority were PC users and even those few that had stuck by the Mac soon moved to what they saw as the greener pastures of PCs—if for no other reason than they were far more affordable than the Macs of that age. But now, ten years after the release of Mac OS X, they're far more likely to be packing an aluminum MacBook than a cheap plastic Dell. Though that might not be a feat to lay solely at the feet of the operating system—Apple's emphasis on hardware design, Microsoft's numerous missteps, and my own repeated entreaties probably contributed—it's hard to argue that Mac OS X didn't play a major role.

Not just because it dragged Macs into the modern era, with long-awaited features like preemptive multitasking and protected memory, previously the domain of its competitors. After all, the vast majority of computer users probably couldn't tell you what either of those even means. No, they came to the Mac because as Apple improved Mac OS X, it stuck to an underlying philosophy: the operating system isn't an end unto itself; it's about making it as easy as possible to use computers to do things.

That's the same philosophy that Apple has taken with the iPhone and the iPad, and to my mind it's the reason that those products have met with such overwhelming success. Frankly, it's hard not to see the impact of Mac OS X on most of the major decisions Apple has made in the past decade, whether it be the importance of iTunes, the transition to Intel processors, or the development of iOS devices—which, after all, are based on the same OS X underpinnings as the Mac.

As we embark upon Mac OS X's second decade, the Mac’s operating system is about to undergo another major shift, perhaps no less significant than that from the classic Mac OS. In the forthcoming Mac OS X Lion, the student becomes the teacher: Apple is beginning to fold features from its iOS devices back into the Mac OS, taking its desktop computer software down a new and very different path.

While those changes have worried some—especially those who have long been invested in Mac OS X—progress, good or bad, is inevitable. The Mac OS X of ten years hence is going to be as different from today’s Snow Leopard as Snow Leopard is from Mac OS X 10.0, but at its core, that future Mac OS X is going to be rooted in those same fundamentals of getting technology out of our way so we can get on with our lives.

As always, the proof will be in the using. But if I may return to my thoroughly unscientific hypothetical graph from above, I’d pose an estimated guess that a decade down the road, that line of satisfaction will continue to trend upwards, and we’ll all be looking back on the Mac OS of 2011 and shaking our heads at what we were missing.

[Dan Moren is a senior associate editor at Macworld, and a Mac OS X user since the year 2000.]

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