Apple’s Goals for the Mac Operating System 

A month or so before introducing the original iPod, Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller stood on stage at Seybold and announced that Mac OS X 10.1 was shipping shortly:

“Now is the time to upgrade,” said Jobs, “this is the mainstream release.”

Jobs continued with the clock metaphor, saying that Mac OS X’s original release was noon, and that we are now at six o’clock. He ended his part by saying that he has been impressed with the speed of Apple’s OS division’s development of Mac OS X 10.1. “Most programmers go on vacation after a major release,” said Jobs, “but Avie Tevanian and his team have kept working to improve Mac OS X.” Jobs said that Mac OS X already has one major update before Windows XP even ships.

In that keynote — which has been mostly forgotten today — Schiller said that Mac OS X was designed to power the Mac “at least fifteen years, or more.”

We now live in that more timeframe. I don’t think a huge change like the OS 9/OS X transition is coming anytime soon, but that macOS will continue to slowly and quietly evolve and improve over the next many years. As recently as the OS X Mavericks keynote, Apple has talked about the future of the operating system in terms of a “decade or more.”

Mac OS X 10.1 was an important releases, but it is not the only thing worth noting in this announcement. Before the 10.1 demo, Schiller discussed the goals Apple had for Mac OS X beyond its desired longevity.

I think this list is really interesting to consider today. Sierra and Puma have a lot in common, but it’s clear that the 15 years between them have brought a ton of change and a lot of improvements.

Let’s look at a few of these goals1 with that timeframe in mind:

The Power of Unix and the Simplicity of Mac

At the time, there was a lot of concern that Mac OS X left behind a lot of the design elements (and quirks) that made the classic Mac OS so lovable.

That OS came with a cost. It could prove unstable and didn’t offer a lot of modern technologies found on other systems. OS X really was an all-new operating system.

Aqua was a big departure from OS 8 and 9’s Platinum theme, but the company worked to return some of old OS’ features — like spring-loaded folders — to OS X.

As time has moved on, most users have come to think of Mac OS X’s features and behaviors as “Mac-like,” forgetting how it used to be.

Embrace open standards

Schiller said that Apple did not just support open standards, but wanted to embrace them in Mac OS X.

While Apple’s services are chock-full of purpose-built, closed standards, macOS makes use of numerous open standards on the system level

Quartz, OS X’s 2D rendering engine, uses PDF and PostScript in the windowing system. Today, Quartz is still hard at work.

Beyond the display layer, macOS is full of open standards. AppleTalk gave way to TCP/IP. Even AFP has lost out to SMB/2 as of Mavericks.

Ultimate Engine for the Digital Hub

The Digital Hub drove Apple’s software direction for many years. The Mac became the central device for photos, video, music and more. Now, a lot of that has shifted to the iPhone and iCloud, but in its heyday, iLife was a huge deal on the Mac.

As important as the Halo Effect was in the early 2000s as iPod owners flocked to the Mac, I think programs like iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand had a lot to do with it, too.

Seamless Mobility

In 2001, Apple was shipping Titanium PowerBook G4 and a range of iBooks. Even then, the company was working to make Mac OS X a good mobile OS. Battery life was a concern even then, as was having good support for wireless and eventually Bluetooth.

This would would pay off in the iPhone. Instead os building atop the iPod’s embedded operating system, Apple started with OS X. In that famous Macworld 2007 keynote, Jobs said:

Software on mobile phones is like baby software. It’s not so powerful, and today we’re going to show you a breakthrough … software that is at least five years ahead of what’s on any other phone.

So, how do we do this? We start with a strong foundation. iPhone runs OS X.

Why would we want to run such a sophisticated operating system on a mobile device? Because it’s got everything we need. It’s got multitasking. It’s got the best networking. It already knows how to power manage; we’ve been doing this on mobile computers for years. It’s got awesome security, and the right apps. It has Cocoa, and the right graphics and Core Animation built in. And it has the audio and video that OS X is famous for. It’s got all the stuff we want.

Enable Killer Apps

This was a big deal during the OS X transition. Every time an Apple executive got on stage, there would be an update about the number of apps for OS X, and sometimes even an update or demo from someone like Adobe or Microsoft. Schiller recalled the past, when many apps would have Mac-specific or even Mac-only features, and painted a picture of the future, where that would be true again.

While today the Mac’s app ecosystem is somewhat stagnant compared to that of iOS, it is still rich and broad. While there will always be Windows-only enterprise tools, almost everyone else can get by with a Mac and a modern web browser.2

Conclusions

Some will say macOS is the past. They may or may not be right, but today, it’s still a vital part of many people’s work. It doesn’t enjoy the spotlight it once did, but Apple continues to work on it. Apple has kept it updated to work well with iOS, while keeping the Mac the Mac.

In hindsight, the goals Schiller shared in 2001 seem completely reasonable, and I think Apple met them all. Some of them aren’t relevant today, and some new ones have surely been added to the list, but I think macOS is still an important part of Apple’s overall strategy, 16 years into its life.


  1. Some of the other goals listed included things about graphics, Internet integration, international support and the migration path from OS 9. 
  2. Something the Mac didn’t have for a long time.