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How the Mac OS X Public Beta Saved the Mac



A public beta CD-ROM for Apple Mac OS X.

On September 13, 2000, Apple released Mac OS X Public Beta, the first public version of OS X to include the Dock. It was also the first to feature the unprecedented feast for the eyes of the Aqua finish. It was the beginning of a new era for Mac that we still live in 20 years later.

A lifeline for Apple

In the late 90s, Apple̵

7;s classic Mac OS felt out of date. Protected storage, preventive multitasking, or user-level access control were not supported. It was also prone to frustrating system crashes.

The interface design also fell behind Windows. Apple knew that Mac OS needed a major overhaul. However, due to software compatibility issues, Apple had to expand the basic system architecture it had been using since 1984.

Several menus open on an Apple Mac OS X public beta desktop.
The Apple Mac OS X public beta desktop. Marcin Wichary / Guide Gallery

Finding a replacement for classic Mac OS has been a long and chaotic process. It involved several internal projects and the search for an acquisition target that could bring new technologies to the company. This prompted Apple to purchase Steve Jobs’ NeXT in 1997 to make its NeXTSTEP operating system the basis for a new, modern replacement for Mac OS.

Under the direction of Steve Jobs’ NeXT crew, Apple began to cater to the needs of older Mac owners while trying to make NeXTSTEP palatable to a mass audience. The result was Mac OS X.

In contrast to Classic Mac OS (but like NeXTSTEP), Mac OS X was based on a Unix-like BSD kernel called Darwin. This made it incredibly stable and laid the foundation for the Mac to become the amazing developer platform it became. Modern versions of macOS are still based on the Darwin core.

After some early beta versions of OS X were released to developers in early 2000, Apple decided to make the new operating system available on CD-ROM through its website for $ 29.95. This enabled Mac owners to put the new software through its paces.

The public beta CD for Mac OS X on the Apple website in October 2000.
The Mac OS X Public Beta CD is expected to go on sale on Apple’s website in October 2000. Apple

Customers who purchased the CD also received a $ 30 discount on future Mac OS X 10.0 purchases (the public beta version expired on May 14, 2001). This gave people enough time to test out the new operating system and give Apple valuable feedback.

An aquarium evolution

In 1999 Apple released an early version of OS X based on prototypes called Rhapsody. It was basically NeXTSTEP that was redesigned with Apple’s classic Mac OS theme “Platinum”.

While the underlying new technology was in place, Rhapsody’s boring look didn’t wow many people. It also didn’t inspire developers who grumbled about having to rewrite their Mac software for the new platform.

An Apple Mac OS 9 skin and a public beta skin for Mac OS X.
The “Platinum” Mac OS 9 (left) and the “Aqua” Mac OS X Public Beta (right). Marcin Wichary / Guide Gallery

Apple knew it took something special to get more attention. The company secretly began work on a flashy new user interface called Aqua. It had built-in support for large icons, as well as shadows and transparency. The colorful buttons and user interface elements also had a fresh translucent look.

The Aqua finish came as a big surprise when Steve Jobs first announced it at the Macworld Conference and Expo in January 2000 (see video below). During his demo, Jobs enjoyed showing off graphical features that we now take for granted, such as drop shadows under windows, icon magnification, and high resolution icons.

The look of Aqua has changed over the years, and Apple no longer mentions it by name. Nevertheless, it is the basis of the modern macOS Catalina interface.

The Mac OS X Dock also made its debut on this demo in January 2000. It offered a flexible and powerful way to launch and manage apps. It finally made it possible for Mac OS to catch up on the functionality of the Windows taskbar.

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Notable similarities and differences

The similarities between the 20-year-old Mac OS X Public Beta and macOS Catalina are pretty amazing. Both have the dock, high resolution icons, three window control buttons (red, yellow and green), global PDF support, and run on Darwin.

The Dock in Mac OS X Public Beta.
The Dock in Mac OS X Public Beta. Marcin Wichary / Guide Gallery

There are also a number of well-known built-in applications: Preview, Mail.app, TextEdit, Address Book, Stickies, QuickTime, Calculator, and an early version of Chess.

The Finder window in the Apple Mac OS X Public Beta.
The applications folder in the Finder on Mac OS X Public Beta. Marcin Wichary / Guide Gallery

Mac OS X Public Beta also had some notable differences from Mac OS X and later versions of MacOS. One of the most obvious was the Apple logo in the middle of the menu bar rather than in the top left.

The Apple logo in the middle of the menu bar on Mac OS X Public Beta.
The Apple logo was in the middle of the menu bar in Mac OS X Public Beta. Marcin Wichary / Guide Gallery

While the pinstripe theme and translucent candy buttons persisted from Mac OS X Public Beta through Mac OS X 10.2, they were eventually replaced with a brushed metal look with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther.

In the public beta of OS X, some functional comfort functions such as Exposé, widgets, notifications and launchpad were missing. There was also no app store, which was only available as a download for OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard in 2011.

Some notable apps were also missing. Instead of Safari (which debuted in 2003), the public beta came with a version of Internet Explorer that had a special Aqua theme.

A
Explorer on Mac OS X Public Beta. Marcin Wichary / Guide Gallery

OS X Public Beta also included a cutting-edge search app called Sherlock, which was later replaced by Spotlight.

A Sherlock search window on Mac OS X Public Beta.
Marcin Wichary / Guide Gallery

There are also no signs of iTunes or Apple Music, just a music player that can play CDs or MP3s. Even if these are missing, Mac OS X Public Beta still feels relatively modern because of the wide range of applications and utilities it includes.

An ongoing legacy

Avie Tevanian, former chief software technology officer at Apple and Mac OS X developer, once said that Apple developed OS X with a lifespan of 20 to 30 years.

In 2000, 30 years must have been an unthinkably long time for a viable software architecture. Here we are almost at the end of 2020, however, and OS X (now “macOS”) continues to do the heavy lifting for Macs. And it will likely stay that way for at least another decade through many architectural changes.




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