Just a few years after a big leadership transition, Apple announced not only a brand new operating system but said they would be offering a public beta to interested customers. Sound familiar? The year was 2000 and the OS in question was the very first version of OS X. Now, 14 years later, Apple’s once again inviting users to come and check out the Mac’s latest and greatest operating system before its impending release.
But where the OS X Public Beta was a one-off move at a time when Apple’s future was decidedly uncertain, the launch of the OS X Yosemite Public Beta this week highlights an Apple that is nothing but comfortable in its spot in the technology industry.
It is the year 2000
Back in 2000, I was a junior at college. I had a blue-and-white PowerMac G3 and a recently acquired PowerBook G3, both running Mac OS 9.0.4. As much love as I held for the classic Mac OS, I’d long accepted that it had grown somewhat long in the tooth. We few, we proud, we hardy Mac users had become the butt of jokes for our Windows enthusiast friends, and features like “preemptive multitasking” and “protected memory” were only discussed in hushed tones.
We were not entirely without hope. Those of us who regularly pored over the pages of magazines like Macworld had eagerly looked forward to a modern OS, rumored to be delivered by projects Taligent, Copland, and Gershwin. But that enthusiasm waned as those promised technologies failed to materialize. The return of Steve Jobs in 1997 may have restored some hope, but it wasn’t until the release of the OS X Public Beta that many of us were willing to accept that maybe this venture wouldn’t go up in smoke. I’m not sure if that was a factor in Apple’s decision to release a public beta, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the company wanted to reassure its user base.
Even once folks like me forked over $30 to get a disc for the Public Beta (via snail mail, naturally) and installed it on our Macs, there was still plenty of trepidation. The interface was familiar in some ways, but there was still much that was alien (why, oh why, was there a non-functional Apple icon in the middle of the menu bar?), there were plenty of features that didn’t quite work yet, and most applications had to be run in a mode that emulated the old Mac OS.
In short, it was a brave new world.
That brave new world has now become the status quo. After 14 years, OS X has become a home for us—in just a few years, we’ll have been using it as long as we were using the classic Mac OS before OS X’s release. New users have flocked to the platform, some of whom weren’t even a glimmer in their parents’ eyes at the time of the OS X Public Beta’s release and who can’t imagine a world where Apple was ever in peril.
So why return to the land of the public beta now? Today’s Apple is hardly teetering on the edge of disaster, and OS X is a stable, mature piece of software.
Therein, I think, lies the reason. Stability and maturity are, frankly, not the kind of thing that most folks get worked up about. With so much attention focused on Apple’s mobile offerings, OS X has, if not fallen by the wayside, at least certainly come to occupy a smaller slice of attention than it did when it was the mainstay of Apple’s product line. In days gone by, it was more important for Apple to maintain a certain degree of secrecy and surprise around its tentpole product; these days, however, competition in the PC market is arguably at an all-time low, and Apple may have trouble even seeing its closest rivals in its rear-view mirror.
Hence moves like making OS X updates free, starting with last year’s Mavericks. The company’s always been committed to delivering great products, but with the PC market in disarray, Apple stands to do better by getting its latest OS into as many customers’ hands as possible. The Public Beta takes that to the next level, inviting users to become part of the testing process and making them a part of a rarefied community (even if that community is a million people large).
That sort of inclusiveness goes a long way towards cementing Apple as a customer-facing company, and it even stands to gain from the testing, bug reporting, and discussion around the beta.
Much has been made of the changes in Apple during these, the early years of Tim Cook’s tenure. And while we Apple watchers are perhaps overly attuned to the inner workings of the company, the signs aren’t that hard to see.
The Public Beta may not even be among the most significant of them in the long run, but it is a sign that Cupertino’s newfound openness isn’t just some sort of strange fluke but rather an institutional decision that will inform Apple’s philosophies and strategies for the foreseeable future.
As focused as Apple has always claimed to be on surprising and delighting its customers, there was always the feeling that it held itself at arm’s length. The Apple that we’re starting to see now would much rather fling open the doors and invite folks in.
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Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident, coming in July 2022.