20 Years of macOS

It is 2021 and would you believe it, macOS is 20 years old. Like someone who found out about band before they became famous, I used Mac OS X back when it was a strangely futuristic operating system that most people had never heard of. 

I left school in the summer of 2001 and to help jumpstart my journey into further education, I used some money gifted to me by my grandparents to buy a G3 Snow iMac. Already a bit of a geek, I knew enough about Macs to know that they were now capable of running OS X, which was Unix based. This meant I could use it do geeky things like running Apache and PHP, and also write up college homework in Microsoft Office. Buying an G3 iMac in the summer of 2001 was also exceptionally poor timing because weeks later Apple would release an updated G4 model, which ran Mac OS X much more smoothly.

My early memories of Mac OS X were mainly of disappointment. Here was an exceedingly beautiful and stable operating system, but it was frustratingly slow. It would take many minutes to boot up, and simple tasks like opening a pulldown menu or resizing a window would cause it to chug. Until I received my free 10.1 upgrade from John Lewis, it was unusable, and so I stuck with MacOS 9.

After installing 10.1 I did however start using Mac OS X as my main system. I recently found some old screenshots from that era, and so I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the applications I was using 20 years ago. I’m not sure of the exact dates but I believe they are all from either 10.0 or 10.1. The screenshots were taken by 16 year old me, so please forgive the embarrassing MSN Messenger friend lists and poorly written homework assignments. 

Scouting around the screenshots, here’s what I was running in 2001:

Activity Monitor – Still something I use often to see how my system is performing. Thankfully now it looks a lot nicer. 

Adobe Reader – An awful piece of software, which is thankfully no longer needed on the Mac these days. In 2001, I must have thought it necessary, despite the Preview app being bundled with the OS.

AOL – It was ugly, but it was one of the best unmetered dialup services in the UK at the time.

Clock – Early versions of OS X included a clock ‘widget’. This wasn’t an official widget like we have now, nor was it the HTML based widgets we would later see in Dashboard. It was simply an application with a non-rectangular window. Best of all, it was possible to customise how translucent the clock was – a novelty in 2001. 

Fire – Before iChat, Fire was the app to use for accessing instant messaging platforms. ICQ, AIM, Yahoo – I was on all of them. The idea of instant messaging that emphasises online presence feels exceptionally dated now, since we are now always online. 

iCab – Back in 2001 decent web browsers were difficult to come by. There was no Safari yet. Internet Explorer was pretty good, and had the ability to customise its colour scheme to match the iMac being used.  There was also Mozilla, which was starting to become a usable alternative to IE, but was still extremely slow. iCab was the third option and the only one that really felt “OS X native”.  Astonishingly iCab is still available for download in 2021. 

iTunes – The first of Apple consumer high quality consumer oriented software that later included the likes of iPhoto and GarageBand. iTunes was in of itself a reason to own a Mac. It made the process of ripping and burning CDs painless. I remember the novel feeling of being able to browse the web while iTunes was burning a CD, thanks to Mac OS X’s ability to multitask. On Windows ME and 98 (XP had not been released yet) this wasn’t possible. Burning a CD would make the entire computer unresponsive. iTunes came in to its own with the release of the iPod, which I was lucky enough to own early on too. 

MSN Messenger – More commonly known as simply ‘MSN’, it was the centre of my social life from the age of 13. I would use it to chat to friends after school or to random people I’d added who I’d met on forums. I wonder if today we would be concerned if a 16 year old was talking to random people they’ve met online, but for me it was fine. At 16, I felt like I was an adult!

Microsoft Office – I purchased the full version of ‘Office X’ which included Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage. It was clearly a straight port from the classic MacOS version, and was using some kind of translation layer to translate Windows code to Mac code. I remember writing Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) code to make full on Windows windows appear. The headline feature for Word was non-contiguous selection.

Palm Desktop – This one really sums up 2001. Back then we had PDAs. My phone was a Motorola T191. If you wanted to have more than just a handful of phone numbers in your pocket, you needed a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). I would later upgrade my Palm IIIe to a Microsoft Pocket PC.

Stickies – The venerable Post-it note app. Enough said. 

Terminal – I used to use this for learning basic Linux commands, and configuring the likes of PHP, Apache and MySQL. Oh, and browsing the web in Lynx, apparently. 

Windows Media Player – Steaming audio or video on the web was a horrible experience in 2001. Partly due to limited bandwidth, but also because there were multiple competing formats. Apple would push QuickTime. Microsoft would insist on you installing Windows Media Player, and everyone else would use RealPlayer. Windows Media Player for the Mac wasn’t the full-on media management solution it was on Windows, but merely a way to playback files encrypted using Microsoft’s DRM.

After 20 years, I really think Apple deserve enormous credit for not screwing up macOS. Despite some missteps, on the whole they’ve keep modernising it without any major regressions. If you were to sit someone from 2001 down in front of the latest version of the operating system in 2021, they would find their way around just fine. Yet it doesn’t feel old. Contrast this to Windows, which has had multiple makeovers and seems to be less of a priority for Microsoft these days, doesn’t support non-modal dialogs, and still has screens that date back to Windows XP. Not many operating systems can claim to be referenced in a U2 song either. After all these years, macOS is still the only desktop operating system that feels like it’s made for users, rather than IT administrators or developers. Little things like being able to drag a project folder to the dock for the duration of that project in order to have easy access to all the related files, the ability to operate a background window without bringing it to the foreground, and best of all, the varied ecosystem of indie software.

Happy Birthday Mac OS X, here’s to 20 more years!

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