Today in Apple history: The seeds of OS X are sown

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Photo: The Color Convergence

Nov25November 25, 1996: Garrett L. Rice, a midlevel manager at NeXT, contacts Cupertino about the possibility of Apple licensing NeXT’s OpenStep operating system.

Rice’s communication with Ellen Hancock, Apple’s chief technology officer, is the first formal step in a long process. It ultimately leads to Apple buying NeXT, the creation of OS X, and Steve Jobs returning home to the company he co-founded.

To Be or not to Be

Apple’s decision to consider licensing NeXT started with the failure of Apple’s Copland project, a supposedly next-gen operating system that never got any further than a beta version released to around 50 Mac developers.

By 1996, Apple was losing money hand over fist. The company desperately needed something that would let it compete with Microsoft and its dominant Windows 95 operating system. It was apparent that licensing Mac OS to third-party manufacturers wasn’t going to be the magic elixir Apple had hoped for.

Apple CEO Gil Amelio told Mac followers that the company’s new operating system strategy would be unveiled at the upcoming January 1997 MacWorld Expo. However, inside Apple it was apparent that this was more a matter of buying time than finishing off the finer points of an existing strategy for showing off to the public.

One option Apple had on the table was buying the BeOS operating system developed by charismatic former Mac executive Jean-Louis Gassée (who now writes the wonderfully insightful Monday Note each week).

BeOS had been showcased in October 1995 when it debuted on the zippy (and now highly sought-after) BeBox computer. The first modern computer operating system written in C++, it boasted impressive multimedia capabilities — such as symmetric multiprocessing, pre-emptive multitasking, pervasive multithreading, and a custom 64-bit journaling file system known as BFS.

Gassée has since said, “Thank god [Apple didn’t buy BeOS] because I hated Apple’s management,” but at the time a lot of people thought it was a good fit for Apple — not least because it shared the philosophy of clear and uncluttered design that characterized Mac OS.

At the time, Gassée reportedly tried to strike quite the hard bargain with Apple, with Be’s investors holding out for $200 million. Apple drew the line at paying more than $125 million.

NeXT steps

The other realistic option Apple had was NeXT. NeXT had been Jobs’ main focus in his time outside Apple (although the fact that his other company, Pixar, made him a billionaire did something to rectify the balance). NeXT was ahead of its time in both software and hardware, but never quite managed to live up to its potential.

Its hardware business had been abandoned, and by 1996 it was firmly focused on software. OpenStep was an open version of NeXT’s NeXTSTEP operating system. It was an object-oriented, multitasking operating system based on UNIX, which later became the basis for OS X and, subsequently, macOS.

By November 1996, Jobs was speaking with Amelio again (albeit only very recently) and he advised that Be was not the right choice for Apple. The November 25 phone call from Garrett L. Rice presented the option Jobs had surely wanted all along: that Apple acquire the rights to put a version of OpenStep on Macs.

By early December, Jobs visited Apple HQ for the first time since his ouster. A deal was made to bring both NeXT and Jobs aboard. It was the best decision Apple made in years.