What is Mac OS X?

© Amit Singh. All Rights Reserved. Written in December 2003

A Brief History of Mac OS X

The goal of this document is not to trace the history of Mac OS X in great detail, so this section would be brief. A more extensive history of Apple's operating systems is covered in A History of Apple's Operating Systems.

All of Steve Jobs' operational responsibilities at Apple were "taken away" on May 31, 1985. Soon (within weeks), Jobs had come up with an idea for a startup for which he pulled in five other Apple employees. The idea was to create the perfect research computer (for Universities and research labs). Jobs had earlier met up with Nobel laureate biochemist Paul Berg, who had jumped at Jobs' suggestion of using a computer for various simulations. Although Apple was interested in investing in Jobs' startup, they were outraged (and sued Jobs) when they learnt about the five Apple employees joining Jobs. Apple dropped the suit later after some subsequent mutual agreements. The startup was NeXT Computer, Inc.

Jobs unveiled the first NeXT Computer (running NEXTSTEP 0.8) on October 12, 1988, in San Francisco, although a mature release of the operating system took another year. The name "NEXTSTEP" has gone through a number of capitalization permutations, so we shall simply use "NEXTSTEP". NEXTSTEP 1.0 shipped on September 18, 1989, over two years later than what Jobs had first predicted and hoped for. NEXTSTEP was based on Mach 2.5 and 4.3BSD, and had an advanced GUI system based on Postscript. It used Objective-C as its native programming language, and included the NeXT Interface Builder.

In the fall of 1990, the first web browser (offering WYSIWYG browsing and authoring) was created at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee on a NeXT computer. Tim's collaborator, Robert Cailliau, later went on to say that "... Tim's prototype implementation on NeXTStep is made in the space of a few months, thanks to the qualities of the NeXTStep software development system ..."

NEXTSTEP 2.0 was released exactly a year later on September 18, 1990 (with support for CD-ROMs, color monitors, NFS, on-the-fly spell checking, dynamically loadable device drivers, ...). 2.1 followed on March 25, 1991, and 3.0 in September, 1992.

In the 1992 NeXTWORLD Expo, NEXTSTEP 486, a version (costing $995) for the PC was announced. Versions 3.1 and 3.2 were released in May and October, 1993, respectively. The last version of NEXTSTEP, 3.3, was released in February, 1995. A bit earlier, in 1994, NeXT and Sun had jointly released specifications for OpenStep, an open platform (comprised of several APIs and frameworks) that anybody could use to create their own implementation of *STEP. NeXT's implementation was named OPENSTEP, the successor to the NEXTSTEP operating system. Three versions of OPENSTEP were ever released: 4.0 (July 22, 1996), 4.1 (December, 1996), and 4.2 (January, 1997). SunOS, HP-UX, and even Windows NT had implementations at a point. The GNUstep Project still exists. Even though *STEP ran on many architectures (multi-architecture "fat binaries" were introduced by NeXT), by 1996, things were not looking good for them, and NeXT was giving more importance to WebObjects, a development tool for the Web.

Meanwhile, Apple had been desperately seeking to create an operating system that could compete with the onslaught from Microsoft. They actually wanted to beat Windows 95 to market, but failed. Apple suffered a setback when Pink OS, a joint venture between IBM and Apple, was killed in 1995. Apple eventually started work on an advanced operating system codenamed Copland, which was first announced to the public in 1994. The first beta of Copland went out in November, 1995, but a 1996 release (as planned and hoped) did not seem feasible. Soon afterwards, Apple announced that they would start shipping "pieces of Copland technology" beginning with System 7.6. Copland turned out to be a damp squib.

At this point Apple became interested in buying Be, a company that was becoming popular as the maker of the BeBox, running the BeOS. The deal between Apple's Gil Amelio and Be's Gassée never materialized - it has been often reported that Apple offered $125 million while Be wanted an "outrageous" $200 million plus. The total investment in Be at that time was estimated to be only $20 million!

Apple then considered Windows NT, Solaris and even Pink OS. Then, Steve Jobs called Amelio, and advised him that Be was not a good fit for Apple's OS roadmap. NeXT contacted Apple to discuss possibilities of licensing OPENSTEP, which, unlike BeOS, had at least been proven in the market. Jobs pitched NeXT technology very strongly to Apple, and asserted that OPENSTEP was many years ahead of its time. All this worked out, and Apple acquired NeXT in February, 1997, for $427 million. Amelio later quipped that "We choose Plan A instead of Plan Be."

Apple named its upcoming NeXT-based system Rhapsody, while it continued to improve the existing Mac OS, often with technology that was supposed to go into Copland. Rhapsody saw two developer releases, in September, 1997, and May, 1998.

Jobs became the interim CEO of Apple on September 16, 1997.

Mac OS X was first mentioned in Apple's OS strategy announcement at the 1998 WWDC. Jobs said that OS X would ship in the fall of 1999, and would inherit from both Mac OS and Rhapsody. Moreover, backward compatibility would be maintained to ease customers into the transition.

Mac OS X did come out in 1999, as Mac OS X Server 1.0 (March 16, 1999), a developer preview of the desktop version, and as Darwin 0.1. Mac OS X beta was released on September 13, 2000.

At the time of this writing, Mac OS X has seen four major releases: 10.0 ("Cheetah", March 24, 2001), 10.1 ("Puma", September 29, 2001), 10.2 ("Jaguar", August 13, 2002), and 10.3 ("Panther", October 24, 2003).

It would be an understatement to say that OS X is derived from NEXTSTEP and OPENSTEP. In many respects, it's not just similar, it's the same. One can think of it as OpenStep 5 or 6, say. This is not a bad thing at all - rather than create an operating system from scratch, Apple tried to do the smart thing, and used what they already had to a great extent. However, the similarities should not mislead you: Mac OS X is evolved enough that what you can do with it is far above and beyond NEXTSTEP/OPENSTEP.

While unrelated to Mac OS X, Apple came out with their version of UNIX, called A/UX, in 1988. A/UX was a POSIX compliant system based on AT&T UNIX System V (various releases) and BSD4.2/4.3, with a wide spectrum of features (STREAMS, TCP/IP, FFS, job control, NFS with YP, SCCS, printing, X Window System, compatibility with SYSV and BSD in addition to POSIX, and so on). More importantly, A/UX combined various features of the Macintosh with Unix - A/UX 3.x was a combination of the above mentioned Unix features with System 7 for the Macintosh, with the Finder and other Mac applications running under A/UX. The last version of A/UX, 3.1.1, was released in 1995. A/UX was regarded as the holy grail of Unices by some people.

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