It was two decades ago to the day – March 24, 2001 – that Mac OS X first became available to users around the world. We’re not always fond of empty sentimentality here at Ars, but the milestone seemed worth a quick note.
Of course, Mac OS X (or macOS 10 as it later became known) didn’t quite survive until his 20th birthday; last year’s macOS Big Sur update brought the version number to 11, ending X’s reign.
But despite its double lifespan on x86 and ARM processors and its ever-closer ties to iOS and iPadOS, today’s macOS is still a direct descendant of that original Mac OS X release. Mac OS X, in turn, evolved in part from Steve Jobs’s NeXT operating system—which was recently acquired by Apple—and its launch heralded the second Jobs era at Apple.
Cheetah, the first release of Mac OS X, was pretty buggy. But it introduced some things that are still present in the operating system today. Those include the dock, which – despite some refinements and added features – is still fundamentally the same as it once was, as well as the modern version of Finder. And while macOS has seen some user interface and design tweaks that have changed over time, the footprints of Cheetah’s much-hyped Aqua interface can still be found all over Big Sur.
OS X brought many new features and technologies that we now take for granted. For example, Apple’s laptops could immediately come out of sleep mode and it introduced dynamic memory management, among other things.
The biggest impact of Mac OS X in retrospect may have been in the role it played in inspiring and supporting iOS, which has far surpassed macOS as Apple’s most widely used operating system. Indeed, macOS lives in a very different context today than it did in 2001. It was recently bumped from the No. 2 operating system globally by Google’s Chrome OS, ending a very long run for Mac OS as the world’s second most popular desktop OS in terms of units shipped.
The most popular desktop operating system in 2021 will be Windows, as it was in 2001, but the most popular operating system overall is Google’s Android, which has a significantly larger market share in the mobile space than iOS.
So while Mac OS X is influential, today it mainly exists as support for iOS, which itself isn’t the most popular operating system in its category. Despite Apple’s resounding success in the second Steve Jobs era, as well as in the recent Tim Cook era, the Mac is still a relatively niche platform — loved by some, but bypassed by much of the mainstream.
After 20 years a lot has changed, but a lot has also remained the same.