Apple calls Tiger, the latest version of its Mac OS X operating system, “the biggest operating-system release in Macintosh history”. Like many Macworld readers I’ve visited Apple’s big-cat game park on each release of Mac OS X, but have also followed the company’s beleaguered efforts to create its next-generation OS for years beforehand. So as we watch Tiger installation progress bars slowly wipe Panther from history and introduce such delights as Spotlight, Dashboard and Automator, here’s my top-ten OS Xs.

Microsoft’s Windows operating system became a raging success after version 3.1, and its planned upgrade (code-named Chicago) was slated for a 1993 release. While it slipped and eventually became Windows 95, Apple knew it had to respond by radically updating its ageing Mac OS. Several projects to create the first total rewrite of the OS since 1984 quickly bit the dust. Star Trek (don’t you just love computer programmers?) was a bold effort to port the Mac OS to run on Intel processors, but was dumped in favour of a move to PowerPC chips. Raptor, which would run on any architecture, was also quickly extinct. Apple and IBM’s Pink project for an object-oriented OS had a longer, lingering death after it was spun out into a company called Taligent.

Copland This project (named after composer Aaron Copland and not the cracking Sly Stallone movie) was announced in March 1994. It was a disaster; the proposed ship date fell behind that of Windows 95, and kept slipping. Apple’s then CEO Gil Amelio described Copland as “just a collection of separate pieces, each being worked on by a different team ... that were expected to magically come together somehow.” Eventually, in May 1997 Amelio announced that Copland would never ship as a single release, but its best bits would instead be released as they became ready. Later that year Apple killed the whole project.

Gershwin Apple’s post Copland project, also named after a famous American composer, was to include memory protection. No one ever actually worked on Gershwin, and it therefore remained a ghostly code-name only.
NeXTStep/OpenStep Apple’s aim for a truly modern OS became a desperate quest. The company first looked to one of its old employees, former president of Apple products Jean-Louis Gassée. The multimedia-savvy BeOS looked a winner, but Gassée blew the deal by demanding $200 million for it.

That’s when another former Apple employee got on the blower to Amelio. This ex-Apple staffer was none other than company founder and former chairman Steve Jobs, who’d been effectively sacked by then CEO John Sculley in 1985. Jobs had quickly founded NeXT Computer to create the ultimate university computer. Its NeXTStep (later OpenStep) software was an object-oriented Unix-based Mach operating system that was used by Brit scientist Tim Berners-Lee to invent the World Wide Web. Mach was at that time no relation to Mac. This simpler version of the 15-year-old heavy-duty Unix operating system was in fact originally named MUCK (Multiprocessor Universal Communication Kernel) by developer Richard Rashid, but an Italian colleague Dario Giuse inadvertently pronounced it Mach, and the name stuck. Rashid went on to become head of research at Microsoft, while co-inventor Avie Tevanian went on to work at NeXT and became chief software technology officer at Apple.

Jobs persuaded Amelio that Apple should buy OpenStep rather than the fledgling BeOS, and Apple duly coughed up $427 million. With the merger of Apple and NeXT (in which Jobs was enrolled as an advisor), Amelio announced that “the next chapter of Apple’s history starts today”.

Within a few months, Amelio was out, and Jobs was installed as interim CEO. A couple of weeks later Apple released Mac OS 8, which included several Copland technologies such as the multithreaded Finder and Appearance Manager. Rhapsody Now the plan was for a dual-OS strategy: the old Mac OS remaining for the consumer market, and the NeXT techs part of Rhapsody – a new OS targeted at servers with a titular nod to the mysteriously virtual Gershwin project.

Rhapsody was first demonstrated at the 1997 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). It was rather confusingly split into coloured ‘boxes’. The Yellow Box was the super-duper new OS with symmetric multiprocessing and protected memory. A Blue Box (later Classic) let you use existing Mac apps, but without any of Rhapsody’s bells and whistles.

Mac OS X Rhapsody’s funny coloured-box plan was renamed as Mac OS X at the 1998 WWDC. Jobs promised that it would ship in the autumn of 1999. Mac OS X Server 1.0
(a tarted-up Rhapsody) did come out that year, on March 16, 1999, alongside a developer preview of the desktop version.

The Mac OS X Public beta was released on September 13, 2000. A message on the cover said: “You are holding the future of the Macintosh in your hands”. Sure, it was buggy and lacked several of the promised high-tech features, but boy did it feel good to finally install. Instantly, everyone still using OS 8 or 9 was a mouth-breathing Neanderthal.

Cheetah Released on March 24, 2001, the first proper version of Mac OS X, version 10.0, included Apple’s first two digital lifestyle applications: iMovie and iTunes. The big-cat code-name was barely mentioned.
Puma Version 10.1 (September 29, 2001) introduced iDVD, and was stable enough to let other software developers, such as Adobe, join in the fun. Apple was getting there.

Jaguar Bizarrely pronounced ‘Jagwire’ by Steve Jobs and therefore everyone else at Apple, version 10.2 (August 13, 2002) was actually referred to by its killer feline code-name – but not in the UK, where the trademark belonged to the car manufacturer. Suddenly everything from Apple was dressed in gaudy faux fur (created by Pixar.) Jaguar was OS X’s real starting point as a usable desktop operating system. Address Book, Mail and iChat popped up, as did iPhoto and the Safari Web browser.

Panther Featuring “over 100 new features” 10.3 (October 24, 2003) included a much-revamped Finder (again) and such lovelies as Exposé and iChat AV.

Tiger It’s been a longer wait than usual for the latest version of Mac OS X – 10.4 taking a year and a half to supplant Panther. And, as Apple boasts, it is the biggest change yet to any of the big cats. I’m looking forward to getting used to the changes and learning the many new features. But within a few months I’ll be eagerly reading the rumour sites for news of Leopard or Lion, and sniggering as Microsoft’s OS X-chasing next-generation Windows Longhorn project slips past yet another promised shipping date. MW