Today in Apple history: Apple’s ‘unreleased’ Mac OS ships to devs

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Remember Mac OS Copland? Probably not from using it.
Remember Mac OS Copland? Probably not from using it.
Image: Apple/Cult of Mac/Ste Smith

November 17: Today in Apple history: Mac OS Copland November 17, 1995: Apple releases the first beta version of its new Copland operating system to around 50 Mac developers.

Not so much a Mac OS update as a totally new operating system, it offers next-gen features and promises to help Apple take on the then-mighty Windows 95. Sadly, it will never reach the public.

Copland and Apple’s existential crisis

Copland was basically an existential nightmare at Apple. In his great (and long-overdue-an-update) book Apple Confidential, author Owen Linzmayer titles his chapter on the project “The Copland Crisis” with good reason.

For years, Apple users and employees (rightly) claimed that Macs offered a far better user experience than the one “enjoyed” by PC owners. When word started to spread about Windows 95, Apple knew it needed to dramatically rethink its operating system to stay ahead of what Microsoft was doing.

The Mac operating system didn’t just need to stay slightly ahead, either. With Macs costing considerably more than PCs, but shrinking in terms of market share, it needed to be way ahead.

Apple announced Copland in March 1994. Named after American composer Aaron Copland, it was to be a full top-to-bottom rethink of Mac OS, years before Steve Jobs did that with the UNIX-based OS X.

It included a lot of features that will seem familiar to users today, such as a Spotlight-esque “live search” feature in the toolbar and more comprehensive multitasking.

It even allowed different users to log in, each with different desktops and permissions. While this is commonplace today, at the time it was unheard of.

In keeping with this customization, Copland was also “theme-able.” Users could choose the theme they liked best — such as a Dark Mode-style futuristic look or a brighter, more kid-friendly one. Visual flourishes extended to an interface using 3D shading and color in a way entirely new to Macs.

Similar to the functionality of today’s Dock, or Windows’ task bar, Copland made it possible to minimize windows by dragging them to the bottom of the screen, where they became tabs.

Another big change: Apple designed Copland to be PowerPC native, with older programs running through an emulator.

So what went wrong with Mac OS Copland?

Apple never released Copland. After the beta version in November 1995, the company continued rolling back the timeline for the full release. Initially slated for 1996, it slipped to 1997. All the time, the Copland budget kept growing as “feature creep” set in. The more Apple delayed it, the more the company felt the need to promise new features to justify the delay.

In 1996, 500 engineers worked on Copland, with a massive budget of $250 million per year. You’ve heard the expression “too big to fail”? Copland was too big to succeed.

When Apple announced a staggering $740 million loss that year, CEO Gil Amelio took to the stage at the Worldwide Developers Conference and said Copland would ship as a series of upgrades, rather than a unified single release. A few months later, it was effectively canceled.

Today, Copland’s biggest legacy of is that it pushed Apple to rethink its operating system strategy. That led to Apple eventually buying NeXT — with Jobs returning to the company he helped co-found.

Like so much of what Apple did in the 1990s, Copland was an extremely promising bit of tech that never lived up to its potential. However, while most such products were at least released, Copland only made it out the door at 1 Infinite Loop in a very limited, heavily stunted beta.

Do you remember news of Copland? Were you an Apple user at this time? Leave your comments below.

Sources: Apple Confidential and Low End Mac

  • ljmac43

    I’m still saddened by the fact that it was never released myself. It had such great new technologies, such as QuickDraw GX and OpenDoc, which were way ahead of their time (we still don’t have anything like OpenDoc to this day). And I still miss the days when I knew what every file on my computer did, and I could put my stiff anywhere I wanted and it would work.

  • Wow these were crazy times in the mac world… I was rocking a 5300ce and an 8500av and waited eagerly for my copy of Macuser to come through the post so I could read about the future of the Mac OS, al the time hoping and praying my macs were not about to go the way of my friends Amiga computers… I miss the days of reading a magazine front to back… but love the fact that everything is now online as soon as or before big things start to happen.

  • bIg hIlL

    “For years, Apple users and employees (rightly) claimed that Macs offered a far better user experience than the one “enjoyed” by PC owners. ”

    I fully agree, the PC experience is completely illusory.