On September 13, 2000, Apple released Mac OS X Public Beta, the first public version of OS X that included Dock. It was also the first to present the unprecedented eye candy that was the Aqua interface. It marked the beginning of a new era for the Mac and one we are still living in 20 years later.
A lifeline for Apple
In the late ̵7;90s, Apple’s classic Mac OS felt outdated. It did not support protected memory, preventive multitasking or user level access control. It was also prone to frustrating system crashes.
Its interface design probably also ended up behind Windows. Apple knew that Mac OS needed a fundamental redesign. However, software compatibility issues led Apple to continue to expand the same basic system architecture they had used since 1984.
The quest to replace the classic Mac OS was a long and tedious process. It involved several internal projects and a search for an acquisition goal that can provide new technology to the company. This prompted Apple to buy Steve Jobs’ NeXT in 1997 with the intention of making its NeXTSTEP operating system the basis for a new, modern replacement for the Mac OS.
With Steve Jobs’ NeXT crew in charge, Apple began juggling the needs of older Mac owners, while trying to make NeXTSTEP tasty for a mass audience. The result was Mac OS X.
Unlike 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 built the foundation for the Mac to become the fantastic developer platform it became. Modern versions of macOS are still based on the Darwin kernel.
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 $ 29.95 website. This allowed Mac owners to put the new software through their paces.
Customers who purchased the CD also received a $ 30 discount on a future purchase of Mac OS X 10.0 (Public Beta released on May 14, 2001). This gave people enough time to try out the new operating system and provide valuable feedback to Apple.
An Aqua Revolution
In 1999, Apple released an early version of OS X based on prototypes called Rhapsody. It was basically NeXTSTEP embellished with Apple’s classic Mac OS “Platinum” theme.
While the underlying new technology was there, Rhapsody’s dull appearance did not excite many. It did not inspire developers, who complained about having to rewrite their Mac software for the new platform.
Apple knew something special was needed to get more attention. The company secretly started working on an exciting new interface called Aqua. It included built-in support for large icons and shadows and transparency. The colorful buttons and interface elements also had a new transparent look.
The Aqua interface was a huge surprise when Steve Jobs first announced it at the Macworld Conference and Expo in January 2000 (see video below). During his demonstration, Jobs was pleased to showcase graphic features that we now take for granted, such as shadows under windows, icon magnification and high-resolution icons.
Aqua’s appearance has changed over the years, and Apple no longer refers to it by name. Still, it’s the foundation of the modern macOS Catalina interface.
Mac OS X Dock also debuted at the January 2000 demo. It provided a flexible, capable way to start and manage apps. It also finally allowed the Mac OS to catch up with the functionality of the Windows taskbar.
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Remarkable similarities and differences
The similarities between the 20 year old Mac OS X Public Beta and macOS Catalina are pretty amazing. They both have Dock, high-resolution icons, three window control buttons (red, yellow and green), global PDF support and run on Darwin.
There is also a group of familiar built-in applications: Preview, Mail.app, TextEdit, Address Book, Stickies, QuickTime, Calculator and an early version of Chess.
Mac OS X Public Beta also had some notable differences from Mac OS X and later MacOS releases. One of the most obvious was the Apple logo in the middle of the menu bar, rather than at the top left.
While Mac OS X Public Beta’s pinstripe theme and transparent candy buttons remained until Mac OS X 10.2, they were eventually replaced by a brushed metal look with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther.
OS X Public Beta also lacked some functional convenience features, such as Exposé, Widgets, Notifications and Launchpad. It also did not include an App Store – which did not arrive until 2011 as a download on OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard.
Some notable apps were also missing. Instead of Safari (which debuted in 2003), Public Beta came with a version of Internet Explorer that had a special Aqua theme.
OS X Public Beta also included a groundbreaking search app called Sherlock that was later replaced by Spotlight.
There are also no characters on iTunes or Apple Music, only a music player that can play CDs or MP3s. Even though they lack these, Mac OS X Public Beta is still relatively modern with its wide range of included applications and tools.
An ongoing legacy
Avie Tevanian, the former head of software engineering at Apple and a Mac OS X developer, once said that Apple designed OS X with 20-30 years of life in mind.
In 2000, 30 years must have seemed like an unimaginably long time for a software architecture to remain viable. Still, here we are almost at the end of 2020, and OS X (now “macOS”) continues to do heavy lifting for Macs. And it will likely continue to do so for another decade, over many architectural shifts.