Today in Apple history: Mac OS 7 gets its final update

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System 7
This was the beginning of the end for System 7.
Photo: Apple

April 7: Today in Apple history: System 7 gets its final update with Mac OS 7.6.1 April 7, 1997: Apple’s System 7 operating system receives its last update with the shipping of Mac OS 7.6.1.

The update brings a few bug fixes and support for Apple’s new PCI Power Macs and the PowerBook 3400. Most importantly, it marks the end of the System 7 era, which dawned way back in 1991.

System 7

Unlike today, when we receive an ostensibly new version of macOS every year, things moved at a slower pace in the 1990s. System 7 arrived in May 1991, bringing some great features such as introducing QuickTime to Macs.

It was the first Apple operating system available on compact discs. (Customers could also get it on a set of 15 floppies.) System 7 was also the Mac operating system that faced off against the world-conquering (at least in terms of popularity) Windows 95.

Before Windows 95 hit shelves on August 24, 1995, Cupertino employees rode around with bumper stickers reading, “Windows 95 = Macintosh ’89.” The joke likened Microsoft’s new operating system to a 4-year-old Mac OS.

The Mac OS 7.6 update brought with it a name change from System 7 to Mac OS. It also added virtual memory and memory management, a new caching system for File Manager, PowerPC Resource Manager routines, and performance improvements.

Unlike today’s free macOS updates, users who wanted System 7.6.1 paid for it — even if they already bought an earlier version of System 7. Considering that it added only minor improvements, this became a point of contention.

The quest for something new

Inside Apple, System 7’s days had been numbered for some time by early 1997. Ever since March 1994, Apple talked up the operating system’s follow-up. Named “Copland,” Apple envisioned it as a full top-to-bottom rethink of Mac OS.

However, Copland was never released beyond a beta version in November 1995. Apple continued rolling back the timeline for the full release, and the project’s budget swelled as “feature creep” set in. By 1996, Apple employed 500 engineers working on Copland. But then-CEO Gil Amelio canceled Copland after Apple’s staggering $700 million quarterly loss.

Cupertino’s desire to introduce a replacement operating system continued, however. That quest ultimately led to Apple acquiring NeXT for its NeXTSTEP operating system (then called OpenStep). This resulted in Steve Jobs returning to Apple, and ultimately displacing Amelio as CEO.

Mac OS 7.6.1: The clone Mac era’s last gasp

In the meantime, however, Apple had a good (if slightly underhanded) reason for abandoning System 7 and replacing it with Mac OS 8, which shipped a few months after Mac OS 7.6.1 in 1997.

That was the height of the “clone Mac” era. Apple had licensed Mac OS to a select few companies like Power Computing and Radius to try and boost Mac market share.

However, this flawed strategy actually cost Apple money. The $50 fee Apple got for every clone Mac sold did not come close to recouping the money lost from people buying third-party Macs instead of more-expensive official ones.

As a result, Apple decided to release its next operating system update as Mac OS 8 instead of Mac OS 7.7. This name change meant Cupertino could end the clone-maker deals, since the agreements signed with them only extended to System 7 updates. By calling the update Mac OS 8 instead, Apple figured it could negotiate new, more favorable terms with third parties licensing its operating system.

For a look at System 7.6.1, check out this website. Do you remember using it at the time? Let us know in the comments below.