Happy Birthday, OS X

Happy Birthday, OS X

Apple’s prized operating system – you may hate it, you may be in awe of its beauty, you may be using it right now – hits a milestone today. Version 10 turns 10 – and it’s come a long, long way.

10.0 (or “Cheetah”, if we’re going by cat names) was a mess. Despite being built atop allegedly solid Unix-like code, and introducing enduring features like the dock (which has barely changed since then), OS X stumbled out of the gate. It was starving for memory (at a time when 128MB was nothing to scoff at), and crashed like hell. Although Windows eventually took the street rep title for instability, it’s worth remember just how horribly prone OS X was for to inexplicable software death.

Eventually, subsequent updates through the zoo (Puma, Panther, Tiger…) not only whipped OS X into stable shape, but added a panoply of features – mundane (the Mail application, DVD support) aesthetic (brushed metal windows! dock reflections!) and some that fundamentally changed the way we work and play with information—Dashboard, Expose, Spotlight – all made radical interface designs mainstream.

But OS X isn’t just significant for its crash to cream progress, but for what it represented an impossible-seeming decade ago. In 2001, the Windows world was bogged down in a morass of compatibility. Microsoft wanted to ensure that, via the babiest of baby steps, users weren’t rocked too hard by the transition from one version of Windows to another. Microsoft coddled its customers – from the crib of MS-DOS to the infamous (-ly bad) Windows ME (Apple’s OS competition when X dropped). The Microsoft approach wasn’t necessarily a wrong way to make an operating system – in gradual, comforting tiptoes – but it sure wasn’t an exciting one. The Start Menu. The Taskbar. Right-clicking. Static landmarks of dragging and clicking that were the computing equivalent of worn-in armchair.

Apple didn’t give a damn about comfort. OS X looked and felt dramatically new. This, as mentioned, brought along a horde of bugs and general unpleasantness. But it was a big, messy, unstable, powerful step. OS X didn’t look like its predecessors because it didn’t wish to – because it wanted to vault forward. Apple was willing to alienate its zealous users with an (at times) unusable OS to make way for a new foundation. Slash and burn.

The result? A decade of OS X adding extremely cool new features while Windows ate dust, at best. Apple chose radical addition over legacy comfort. It’s paid off (for the most part – does anyone still use Dashboard that much?) and made people excited over the words “operating system” every year or so, which is a pretty mammoth accomplishment in itself.

As we await the next big cat, we have a feeling OS X will someday take a leap into strange, untested waters once more. Which is exciting! But please – just make sure it’s stable. Either way, happy birthday, furball.