OS X may be retired, but it deserves to be remembered. Take a trip back with these 14 key milestones in the double-decade history of the operating system that helped transform a nearly bankrupt Apple into a trillion-dollar company.
By Michael Muchmore
The arrival of OS X was, itself, perhaps the most significant turning point in the history of the Mac. It was a result of Steve Jobs coming back to Apple in 1997 along with his NeXT company’s operating system software, on which OS X was partly based. It may be hard to believe today, with Apple now a trillion-dollar company, but prior to that triumphant return, Apple’s computers were in a perilous position, with some even thinking the brand might not survive.
There were plenty of other microcomputer (the term used at the time) makers that did go under, Amiga, OS/2, and CP/M system builders among them. Readers with short or selective memories may be startled to learn that three years prior to the 2001 launch of OS X (the “X” is pronounced “ten”), Microsoft, in a bid to avoid appearing to be a monopoly, invested $150 million in Apple to help keep the company afloat.
PCMag’s first appraisal of the new OS X was not encouraging. It begins, “Mac users, you’re not going to like this. Not at first, anyway, and maybe not even for a day or two. An operating system upgrade is supposed to make your life easier, not force you to spend hours figuring out how to perform everyday tasks.”
The reason for this caution? The new OS version completely gutted and replaced its predecessors’ underpinnings, upgrading it with a highly stable UNIX base. Some might be surprised that the kernel of OS X and macOS is actually open source, because it derives from that code base. The OS itself is not open source, nor are any of its interface components. This allows Apple to benefit from the open-source testing of its kernel’s stability while keeping the system as a whole a closed architecture, for its own eyes alone.
The switch to the totally re-architected OS X was reminiscent of Microsoft’s move to Windows Vista, but with an important difference. Both new OSes annoyed users because some old hardware (especially printers) and software would become incompatible, but both were far more stable than their predecessors. Apple was smart enough, however, to embed a copy of OS 9.1 in OS X, so users could continue to use their old software and hardware, eventually to be weaned off that for newer products.
Needless to say, over the course of 20 years, Apple delivered an enormous amount of new technology in its OS X desktop operating system. It would be impossible to cover them all in a reasonable-length article, so we’ve cherry-picked some standout moments. If you think we’ve missed a big one or included one that’s not so significant, feel free to mention it in the comment section below.
Soon after the launch of OS X, Apple’s first iPod appeared, and it completely revolutionized the music industry. iTunes was actually available on Macs before the iPad came out. The iPod’s interface took cues from OS X, with things like the blue, filling Aqua progress bar and the brushed metal borders. iTunes has been killed off in macOS, but ironically it lives on as a Windows 10 store app. Apple still sells one model of the iPod, the iPod touch 7th generation; though that device hasn’t been updated in a few years, it does run iOS 14, the latest iteration of Apple’s mobile software.
OS X v10.1 launched a trifling six months after the initial version, and the press release for this update touted that it was “the first operating system to allow consumers to burn over 4 gigabytes of data to a DVD.” Though that seems quaint now, the then super-hot field of multimedia was at that time all about shiny discs. PCMag had a Digital Edition that shipped on a CD-ROM put out by a dedicated team. Note that, although the 10.1 OS X version was codenamed Puma, Apple didn’t start using the feline branding in public marketing materials until the next one, Jaguar 10.2.
Discs weren’t the only media the new version could handle. Our review notes its newfound skill at ingesting digital photos: “OS X 10.1 works seamlessly with a variety of proprietary photo transfer systems, such as those used by Kodak and Nikon cameras, and the OS can transfer photos without the need for special software.”
Already in its third version, 2003’s OS X 10.3 Panther added built-in VPN support. But in this case, it was support for the PPTP protocol, at the time used by corporation workers to log into their company’s network, rather than the security and content unblocking functions we mostly associate VPNs with today. The version added other things to make OS X more alluring to corporate users: support for Microsoft’s Active Directory and Exchange products.
As ExtremeTech’s Jamie Lendino wrote in an earlier PCMag Mac history piece, “…in a stunning 2005 announcement, Apple switches from the tough-to-scale PowerPC hardware architecture to Intel, giving Macs the same internals as you’d find on a PC running Windows.” Support for Intel CPUs came with OS X 10.4.4 update of Tiger in 2006. Tiger also brought the beloved Spotlight search and the recently discontinued Dashboard widgets (they could be used as late as 2018’s Mojave). Fortunately for existing Mac owners, full support for PowerPC-based apps wasn’t completely removed until 2009’s Snow Leopard release. It was supported thanks to Apple’s Rosetta technology.
Only in the past year is this era ending, with Apple moving its desktops to ARM-based M1 Apple Silicon CPUs. One benefit of this switch was that you could directly compare the performance of Mac OS X with that of Windows on the same hardware, since you could boot a Mac to Windows using Boot Camp—something that will be lost with the move to ARM-based Apple Silicon CPUs. Happily, Rosetta makes a comeback with Big Sur.
The January 2011 OS X 10.6.6 update to 2009’s Snow Leopard release was one of the first big ideas to move from the iPhone’s iOS to Mac OS X: The App Store. The Mac App Store, in this case. The idea was not only to give developers a unified place to highlight their apps, but also to ease installation for end users. Updates are handled through the App Store as well, and you can use an app you bought on one Mac on any other app as long as you’re signed in to the same account. Unfortunately, app stores on the desktop haven’t been the home run they’ve been on mobile, with much high-profile software missing from both major desktop platforms’ app stores.
Prior to Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, 10.5 Leopard added nifty new tools, including Time Machine and Spaces (virtual desktops). Its follow-up, 10.6 Snow Leopard, mostly consisted of under-the-hood optimizations.
2011’s Lion, on the other hand was a massive update, as its codename suggests. It moved the OS code entirely to 64-bit code away from 32-bit (though it could still run 32-bit apps). Interface-wise, it added Mission Control (a unified interface for Expose, Spaces, and Dashboard) and introduced the underappreciated LaunchPad, which finally answered Windows’ Start menu to some extent.
Maybe the biggest advance of Lion, however, was the introduction of iOS-like features, something Apple has continued ever since, even moving to the same CPU family. AirDrop, a feature of both Apple’s mobile and desktop OSes arrives in Lion, too.
After the disastrous launch and demise of Apple’s MobileMe online service, in the same year that Lion saw the light, iCloud appeared. Unlike MobileMe, iCloud is more of a syncing and backup service. MobileMe actually provided website building and hosting, which isn’t available in iCloud. Like MobileMe, iCloud hosts email account, but it adds photo hosting and sharing, as well as collaborative document editing with online versions of Apple’s iWork applications. Some users object to frequent Mac messages stating that they had to upgrade to paid cloud storage plans, but iCloud has been a successful revenue generator. Even the author of this piece pays a monthly fee to have all his iPhone photos available from the web browser interface of iCloud.
The ability to seamlessly text message from your desktop without any special setup is something that still distinguishes macOS. It arrived with Lion’s successor, 2012’s Mountain Lion. (For minor version updates, Apple incorporates the predecessor’s name in the OS name, hence, Leopard-Snow Leopard; Sierra-High Sierra; and so on.) Of course, the phone integration only works if you have an iPhone; the recent Windows 10 Your Phone feature offers similar functionality with Android, though it’s not as smooth. Using Apple’s FaceTime on a Mac just as you would on your phone completes the ecosystem’s peerless communication skills. At the time FaceTime was an app available on the Mac App Store, it’s now an integral part of the OS.
Starting with 2013’s OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Apple switched its naming convention from big cats to coastlines and other geographic features of the company’s home state of California. Speaking of geography, Mavericks brought the Apple Maps app to the desktop. In fact the release was more about new ancillary apps than about the OS itself, with other additions including iBooks and updated versions of Calendar and the then-called iLife apps ( iMovie, GarageBand, and iPhoto—now Photos) and iWork ( Pages, Numbers, and Keynote).
Though it also arrived with Mavericks, this one deserves its own turning-point entry: Mavericks started the trend of new Mac OS X versions being free. Most people these days probably forget that upgrading to a new OS X version used to cost money: $129 for some early versions. The move pushed Microsoft to follow suit with Windows 10, which was a free upgrade from Windows 7 for a full year. All subsequent Windows 10 versions have been free upgrades. OS X Mavericks continued the practice of updates occurring via the Mac App Store, which later reverted to using System Preferences.
PCMag’s Max Eddy, a longtime Mac user, notes that “OS X was all about skeumorphism from the start, and that was so different from OS 9. I remember being astonished at having to click the little iris in OS X, revealing a glowing nuclear symbol, that you pressed to burn CDs.” Those picturesque images adorning icons have become passé, and following the iPhone’s retreat from skeuomorphism 2014’s Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite ditched most of them, too, in favor of flat, 2D icons. In PCMag’s review of Yosemite, Edward Mendelson wrote, “For the first time, everything—and I do mean everything—has a consistent look, and it’s different from that of all the earlier versions.” He considered the new design for the Recycle Bin icon “a wonder to behold,” but found the smiling Finder icon “smug and goofy.”
Continuing the Mac’s tighter and tighter integration with the iPhone, Yosemite also introduced Continuity, which lets you make and receive calls and SMS text messages from your Mac while the phone is in proximity. The related Handoff feature lets you start doing something on one device—writing a message or email, browsing a webpage in Safari, or writing a document—and then hand it off to another device to continue working with it. Also, your open tabs in Safari on the Mac are visible in your phone’s Safari app.
AI assistants have become a part of our lives. Siri had been a key feature of iOS for years, but Apple didn’t include it on the Mac till a year and a half later than Cortana appeared on Windows, arriving in 2016’s macOS 10.12 Sierra. With this version, Apple also unified its operating system naming scheme, ditching OS X for macOS, to align it with iOS, watchOS, and tvOS. Sierra’s successor, High Sierra, was largely and under-the-hood revamp, in particular changing the files system from HFS+ to Apple File System, which is speedier and more secure.
Around the time that 2018’s macOS Mojave 10.14 saw the light of day, Dark modes had become all the rage on both mobile and desktop platforms. Mojave’s implementation was far more consistent and appealing than Windows 10’s Dark mode, which appeared a few years earlier but didn’t apply the umbral treatment to all interface elements, instead adding them piecemeal with subsequent releases.