Get this: we're now in the 16th year of OS X, whereas the original Mac operating system that it replaced officially lasted only 15 years. Neither fact is entirely true, as the first OS X was for servers rather than general users like us. Also the old operating system stuck around for quite a while, but look at that. OS X started half the Mac's lifetime ago, and some of us still regard it as the new one.
Even Apple is hanging on to that idea of it being new: the average time between major releases of the original OS was 23 months, but we've now had OS X on desktops for 177. Apple just won't go to version OS XI, will it?
That 177 months figure is since OS X was made available to the public for use on regular Macs, and it was September 2000 when Apple released it as a beta. Fifteen years on, they're about to release OS X El Capitan -- the 13th version -- as a public beta too. It was that fact reminded me of OS X's first days, and what it was like moving to it from OS 9 -- what it was like trying out the new Mac operating system when PCs ruled the Earth.
The received wisdom is that OS X fared poorly at first, and there are countless reasons to agree with that. Even ignoring the bare-bones public beta, called Kodiak, there were problems with the first official release, OS X Cheetah (10.0), which came out in March of 2001. You couldn't play DVDs on OS X Cheetah, and while it's perhaps surprising to say it now, back then that was a big deal. There was also the bigger issue that Cheetah's performance was arguably so poor you couldn't use it as your main machine. Plus, it took time for software to be updated to work on OS X, so the odds were low that you could bury OS 9 completely, whatever your work was.
However, you could run OS 9 apps, within OS X and I did. What I remember is how quickly it installed on the black PowerBook G3 I was using at the time. From start to finish, it wasn't a fast job but the first sight of that minimalist grey screen came quickly, and it looked so classy. Classy enough that I can recall that moment, when actually much of the rest of the OS is harder to remember.
There was the Aqua look where everything was "lickable." It seemed great at the time, but we were young then. There was a big analog clock that could hover over your desktop and all apps: that was so good I tried to keep hold of it, even when it vanished from OS X. I went to some lengths to get it back, but it then kept crashing, so I had to let it go. I still miss it.
There was the dock, and not only do we still have that, I've got it at the foot of my screen now: I never hide it, never move it to the corner. I like it right where it is, and by comparison I had loathed OS 9's little sticky-out button that you could drag along into a mini dock.
We weren't supposed to know the name OS X Cheetah, and for a long time we didn't. We also didn't officially know the name OS Puma (10.1), which followed along in September and was the first-ever free upgrade -- a sort of apology for how poor Cheetah was. It was only when we reached OS X Jaguar (10.2, the following August) that somehow the internal codenames became the public ones. They'd be written on the boxes -- do you even remember software coming in boxes? -- and I had a growing collection of these on my shelves.
It was really OS X Jaguar that took off. I think it was around then that I realized I was no longer using any OS 9 apps within its so-called "Classic" environment. It was definitely around then that the classy startup screen got classier, with the Apple logo instead of the smiley-face Finder one. It was in Jaguar that Apple introduced Address Book, which I used from then to about four months ago, when I swapped to BusyContacts.
Then OS X Panther (10.3), more than a year later in October of 2003 added Exposé, the feature whereby you could flick at your mouse and have all your open windows scurry off into corners, or arrange themselves neatly. I've rarely used it to this day, and wouldn't especially miss it, even though the new OS X El Capitan is improving it. I definitely don't miss the brushed metal look that Panther bought in –- but I'm man enough to admit I liked it at the time.
I think I also liked that OS X releases seemed to come then when they were ready: there wasn't the annual release cycle that there is now. So it took getting on for two years before OS X Tiger (10.4, April 2005) came out -- introducing Spotlight, improving Mail and much more that didn't grab me -- and two more years after that before OS X Leopard.
Then in 2007, which seems impossibly long ago yet it's only when Time Machine was introduced, I think OS X had settled into a certain pattern. You would get a new edition, and briefly think this was the bee's knees before incredibly quickly forgetting what things used to be like. Until you went back. When I was on OS X Leopard and parts of the BBC were still on Tiger, it was actually irritating. Tiger, which had seemed so good, now seemed a pain.
It's the same right now: I'm on OS X Yosemite, and yesterday I had to use a machine that's stuck forever on Mountain Lion. It wasn't like the Stone Age, but it felt exasperating and also so very slow. That will be the machine's fault, but because it's OS X you look at all the time, it feels like that's what is slowing you down.
In a way, this has partly taken some shine of OS X for me. I know that whatever I'm using now, I will find a bit exasperating when I've moved to the next one. I'll be running OS X El Capitan's beta version next month, which means I was only on Yosemite for nine months. Only two versions of the original Mac OS lasted the same or less: System 4 was out for nine months, and System 5 for six months. Plus, installing OS X now is so easy that it doesn't feel like the big deal it was when you had to get it off a shiny disc.
Maybe I could do my work with a PC: plenty of people do. I can't even argue that I do it better with a Mac, because I don't know if I do it well at all. Yet I can tell you that I enjoy using OS X. All these years and all these versions later, OS X is a daily, hourly pleasure to use.
Listen, I gave a presentation last week where the organizers were using PCs and during the talk, Windows switched to a screen saver. During a presentation
. You know OS X wouldn't do that. Each time I'd cross a certain part of the stage, I apparently had the Windows XP logo projected onto my face, and I could tell from the way my skin sizzled like a vampire sprayed with holy water.
-- William Gallagher (@WGallagher