March 24, 2001, was a banner day for Mac users. On that day, twenty years ago, Apple introduced the next generation of the Mac operating system – Mac OS X 10.0 “Cheetah.” The introduction was no small matter, as it marked a change in how Macs work that remains up to this day with macOS 11 “Big Sur.” Let’s take a look at the history of Mac operating systems from 1984 until now, starting with the “Classic” operating system introduced in 1984 and ending with Big Sur.
Classic Mac OS: From System 1 to OS 9
At the beginning (1984), there was System 1. For those of us who were around at the time the first Mac was released, System 1 was a revolutionary operating system. It was the first popular consumer OS to use a graphical user interface. Apple had released the Lisa with a GUI in 1983, but it was ridiculously expensive ($9,995, equivalent to almost $26,000 in 2020 dollars), slow, and used unreliable floppy disks coupled with a 5 MB hard disk drive. In the two years that the Lisa was on the market, it sold only 10,000 units.
As crude as the System 1 desktop looks in the screenshot above, it introduced many concepts that still exist in macOS today. Overlapping, resizable windows; the Finder, folders, a mouse-controlled pointer, the Trash can, and the top menu bar anchored by the Apple icon.
System 1 through System 4
System 1 through System 4 (1987) offered a few enhancements along the way. For example, System 2 brought multiple folders and screenshots (Command – Shift – 3), while System 2.1 added support for the Apple Hard Disk 20 (that’s 20MB, not GB…). System 3 brought 800K startup drives, SCSI for connectivity to scanners, printers, and storage, AppleShare (early networking and file sharing).
System 4.1 was notable in that it supported the Motorola 68020 CPU, expansion slots, and color display of the Macintosh II. It also supported Apple Desktop Bus, used for many years to connect keyboards, mice, and other devices. ADB also worked with adapters to connect Macs to AppleTalk networks.
System 5 and 6
Apple began charging for operating system upgrades with System 5. For $49, users got three manuals and four diskettes. One of these diskettes, “Disk Utilities 1”, came with Disk First Aid and HD SC Setup. That bootable diskette was a direct ancestor of the Disk Utility we still use today.
System 6 also brought support for the Motorola 68030 CPU and the 1.44MB SuperDrive floppy.
System 7 / Mac OS 7.6
Of all of the original System releases, I remember System 7 as being the most long-lived. It was a big improvement over earlier versions, offering more stability, virtual memory support, cooperative multitasking through MultiFinder, and the AppleScript scripting language. AppleScript is part of today’s Automator and offers a way to automate operating system and app functions.
About this time, Apple started using PowerPC processors in the Mac line. With Mac OS 7.6, Apple dropped the “System” designation as it was trying to drum up support for the Mac operating system on third-party Mac clones.
Mac OS 8
Shortly after Steve Jobs returned to Apple from his NeXT adventure, Apple released Mac OS 8. It was originally supposed to be called Mac OS 7.7. Jobs had it renamed in order to take advantage of a legal loophole and stop third-party licensing to clone manufacturers.
Mac OS 8 was quite popular, primarily because Mac users had been hungering for a replacement to System 7. True multi-threading appeared, allowing file system operations to happen in the background. Probably the most significant change was to the Mac file system, as Mac OS 8 introduced HFS+, the file system used in macOS up to version 13 “High Sierra” when APFS arrived.
Mac OS 9: The last “Classic” Mac operating system
With Steve Jobs back in charge at Apple, the company began to work in earnest on a replacement for the dated operating systems. Jobs had spearheaded the move to a UNIX-based OS called NeXTSTEP while at NeXT, and when Apple purchased the company, it also brought over the basis for Mac OS X.
In 1999, Apple released Mac OS 9 as the last classic Mac operating system. It improved on earlier support for AirPort wireless networking, brought on-the-fly file encryption to the Mac, and had much better USB drivers than earlier versions.
Mac OS 9’s lasting legacy was providing developers with the ability to adopt some features of Mac OS X before its arrival. This made Mac OS X transition much easier; it included APIs for the file system and bundled the Carbon library to allow apps to run natively on Mac OS X.
Mac OS X
Apple released Mac OS X 10.0 “Cheetah” twenty years ago on March 24, 2001. This was the first of the so-called “cat” versions of the Mac operating system, lasting through OS X 10.8 “Mountain Lion”. After that time, Apple began using place names from California, starting with OS X 10.9 “Mavericks” and continuing through macOS 11 “Big Sur”.
Mac OS X 10.0 “Cheetah”
I was totally unimpressed with Mac OS X 10.0. It was slow, it seemed half-baked, and very few native apps were available at launch. Kernel panics were very common with 10.0, although they became less frequent after a few bug fixes.
10.0 was groundbreaking in one respect – the Finder looked much different. Apple introduced Aqua, a GUI with many translucent features, soft edges, and anti-aliasing to make it look more “realistic.” Aqua seemed to match the colorful iMacs and PowerBooks of the time.
Mac users got to know the Dock, a feature of Mac operating systems since 2001.
Mac OS X 10.1 “Puma”
Puma was the first version of Mac OS X that seemed to run at a decent speed on the hardware of the time. Released on September 24, 2001, It added a DVD player that somehow went missing in Cheetah, and was a free upgrade to anyone who used Mac OS X 10.0. If you were still using Mac OS 9, the upgrade cost $129.
By January of 2002, Apple officially stated that Mac OS X would be used on all Macintosh products sold by the company.
Mac OS X 10.2 “Jaguar”
Perhaps it was because I was running one of the sleek PowerBook G4 laptops at the time Jaguar appeared (August 2002) that this OS release felt like a major speed boost. 10.2 was very fast and included two new features – iChat and the Address Book. The user interface radically changed as well, with Apple boasting that it had made over 150 UI changes.
Mac OS X 10.3 “Panther”
Now, I thought that Jaguar was fast, but Panther (introduced in October of 2003) seemed like someone had applied afterburners to the Macs of the day. The Aqua interface started to fade away, replaced with a more “brushed-metal” look. Panther was the first to introduce faster user switching through the Apple menu, added the Exposê window manager, and brought FileVault encryption to the Mac.
That’s not all! Panther introduced Mac users to the Safari web browser and iChat AV, which provided video conferencing features. PDF rendering was much improved, and Panther made it much easier for Mac users to co-exist with Windows users.
Mac OS X 10.4 “Tiger”
Released in April of 2005, Tiger added more than 200 new features. Apple was beginning to pull away support from older machines, and Tiger ran on both PowerPC and the Intel-based Macs released in January 2006. To run Tiger, your Mac had to have a minimum of 256MB of storage and a built-in FireWire port.
Tiger was definitely a major release. It introduced Spotlight for file searches, the Dashboard, Smart Folders, updated the Mail app with Smart Mailboxes, and added Automator, VoiceOver, Core Image, and Core Video. The first “Mac-based” Apple TVs actually used a modified version of Tiger as the operating system.
Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard”
After Tiger was released, Mac fans waited for over two years for 10.5 Leopard to appear in October of 2007. While Leopard still provided support for PowerPC Macs, only the G4 PowerPC chip was supported. Leopard would be the last version of Mac OS X to support the PowerPC architecture.
What was new in Leopard? Once again, the look was subtly altered and Finder was updated. Time Machine, Apple’s easy-to-use backup app, was introduced. Spaces allowed switching between groups of apps, and the Boot Camp dual-boot Windows compatibility environment came pre-installed. Leopard also provided full support for 64-bit applications and began to introduce new security features.
Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard”
Another two-year wait brought Mac users Snow Leopard, which didn’t change the appearance of the OS that much but improved the performance and stability of the operating system. Snow Leopard was the first OS running only on Intel Macs, featured improved 64-bit support for larger amounts of RAM, better multi-core support, and vastly improved GPU performance through OpenCL.
One thing that was very noticeable with Snow Leopard was how much disk space the OS freed up after a clean install compared to earlier versions. Finder was much more responsive, Time Machine backups were speedier, and the Preview app gained most of its present-day capabilities.
The best addition to Snow Leopard, in my opinion, was the Mac App Store. Providing an on-device method of purchasing and updating apps, the Mac App Store eliminated the need for boxed apps once and for all.
Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion”
In 2011, Apple release 10.7 Lion, adding some features to the Mac operating system that had been pioneered in iOS. For example, Launchpad added an easy-to-navigate list of apps, while more multi-touch gestures were included for use on trackpads.
Apple’s Rosetta environment disappeared with Lion, meaning that PowerPC apps were no longer supported in the operating system. Scrollbars became auto-hiding, only appearing when used, and Mission Control unified Exposé, Spaces, Dashboard, and full-screen apps into a single interface. Auto-save of documents arrived with Lion.
OS X 10.8 “Mountain Lion”
With Mountain Lion’s release in 2012, Apple began the annual operating system releases that are now common. One reason for that: OS updates were now available through the Mac App Store for the first time. Apple started aligning iOS and Mac OS X features a lot more. For example, the Messages app brought messaging in line with the iOS platform, iCal was renamed Calendar, Reminders became a separate app, and Notification Center arrived.
There was also one other minor change starting with Mountain Lion – the operating system name no longer included “Mac” at the beginning.
OS X 10.9 “Mavericks”
No more cats! Mavericks was a nod to a famous surfing beach near Half Moon Bay in California frequented by many Apple employees. Mavericks also marked the beginning of free operating system upgrades for the Mac. No longer would Apple charge for any OS update on any of its devices.
Mavericks added the Maps and iBooks (now Books) apps to the Mac; previously, they were only found on iPhone and iPad.
OS X 10.10 “Yosemite”
Continuing the march toward our present-day macOS 11, 10.10 Yosemite was released in October of 2014. It redesigned the user interface to more closely resemble iOS 7, with a “flat” design, translucency effects, and more saturated colors. Handoff made it possible for users with iPhones to answer phone calls, received and send SMS messages, and complete iPhone emails on their Macs.
The Photos app appeared in the third major release of Yosemite, replacing both iPhoto and Aperture.
OS X 10.11 “El Capitan”
Released in September of 2015, El Capitan primarily added refinements to the user experience and performance improvements. Public transport was added into the Maps app, the Notes app was changed GUI-wise, San Francisco became the default system font for improved readability, and System Integrity Protection was added.
Apple’s Metal API was also added, supporting all Macs released since 2012. Metal allowed system-level rendering to be sped up by up to 50 percent, and drastically improved draw call performance in games and pro apps.
macOS 10.12 “Sierra”
In 2016, we saw yet another change to the naming convention for the Macintosh operating system, now called macOS. Sierra didn’t seem to add much in terms of functionality, with the exception of Siri becoming available on Apple’s desktop and laptop OS.
Apple also updated Photos, Messages, and iTunes.
macOS 10.13 “High Sierra”
Released in 2017, High Sierra’s main new feature was the introduction of the first new Mac file system in a long time – Apple File System (APFS). APFS is optimized for the solid-state storage found in most new Macs. It’s also the sole file system used by all Apple devices including the Apple Watch, Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch.
APFS is a definite look towards the future. The file system supports up to 9 quintillion files on a single volume, supports native full-disk encryption, and creates snapshots to create a read-only backup of the file system at a point in time.
macOS 10.14 “Mojave”
Mojave introduced Dark Mode to the Mac operating system, and also added Apple News to the Mac. This was the first version of the operating system to require a GPU that supported Metal. Remember how previous versions of the operating system had used the App Store to update system software? Now they moved to a panel in System Preferences.
macOS 10.15 “Catalina”
Catalina brought better voice control to the Mac, a boon to those with disabilities. iTunes was replaced with the Music, TV, and Podcast apps, allowing more functionality in a less-cluttered user interface than iTunes.
If you had an iPad, Catalina was the first version to bring support for Sidecar, turning that iPad into an external Mac monitor. Catalina also dropped support for 32-bit applications, solely relying on 64-bit versions of apps.
macOS 11 “Big Sur”
Here we are at the present. Big Sur finally moved the Mac past version 10. macOS 11 marked the change to Apple Silicon, as Apple begins to move away from Intel processors.
This latest iteration brought some familiar old names back to the Mac world – Rosetta 2 makes it possible for Intel-based apps to run on Apple Silicon, and Universal Binaries will run on both natively on both Intel and Apple Silicon Macs. Their predecessors enabled PowerPC apps to run on Intel chips and for apps to run natively on both PowerPC and Intel Macs.
What’s in our future?
The Mac is here to stay. The Mac operating system is the second-largest consumer operating system behind Microsoft Windows and is still lauded as it was back in 1984 as the easiest computer operating system to use.
Mac OS X was a huge change to the Mac world in 2001, bringing the solidity of the UNIX kernel to the core of the OS and providing the framework for all Apple operating systems. We don’t have a crystal ball – perhaps macOS, iOS, and iPadOS may converge into a single OS to run on desktop and mobile systems. Macs are long overdue for a touch interface (in my opinion, of course).
Whichever direction macOS goes in the future, it’s not likely to change from the UNIX underpinnings that were first introduced in 2001. What features would you like to see in a future Mac operating system? Let us know in the comments section.