Today in Apple history: Beginning of the end for Mac OS Copland

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Remember Mac OS Copland? Probably not from using it.
Copland never saw the light of day.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

April 26: Today in Apple history: Mac OS Copland suffers fatal blow when David C. Nagel leaves Apple April 26, 1996: Apple’s eagerly anticipated, but much delayed, Copland operating system for Mac suffers a fatal blow when the senior VP in charge of the project leaves the company.

David C. Nagel, Apple’s chief technologist, previously promised Mac OS Copland would ship to users by mid-1996 at the latest. With meeting that deadline no longer possible, he leaves Apple for a job running AT&T Laboratories.

It’s yet another sign that Apple’s top-to-bottom operating system upgrade is in major trouble.

Mac OS Copland: Apple reacts to Windows 95

For as long as Apple had been shipping Macintosh computers, the Mac OS had been the clear benchmark for quality computer operating systems. However, by the mid-1990s, the Mac’s core software was starting to look a little long in the tooth. System 7 remained superior to Windows 95, but to many users, the gap looked less evident than before.

Copland, named after American composer Aaron Copland, was a project designed to restore Apple’s competitive edge. Announced in March 1994, the OS promised many features that seem familiar today. Among them: a Spotlight-esque “live search” feature in the toolbar, more comprehensive multitasking, and the ability to let different users log in (each with different desktops and permissions).

In keeping with this customization, Apple made Copland “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. The OS’ visual flourishes extended to an interface using 3-D shading and color in a way Macs previously could not.

Similar to today’s Dock (or Windows’ taskbar), Copland made it possible to minimize windows by dragging them to the bottom of the screen, where they became tabs. Another big change came under the hood: Apple designed Copland to be PowerPC-native, with older programs running through an emulator.

One Copland beta and lots of feature creep

Things seemed on track for a while. In November 1995, Apple released the first Copland beta to a select group of around 50 Mac developers. However, things never went further than that. After the beta shipped, Apple kept rolling back the timeline for the full release. Amid the delays, Cupertino routinely added extra features to justify the increased development time.

As a result, the project simply became too expensive and unwieldy. By 1996, 500 engineers toiled away on Copland. The project’s annual budget ballooned to a massive $250 million.

When Nagel left Apple on April 26, 1996, it was proof positive that things were going wrong. One of the Apple execs most synonymous with the project, he even led the Copland discussion at Macworld Boston in August 1995.

Following Nagel’s departure, Apple insisted that the operating system would ship eventually. However, soon after Apple posted a staggering $740 million loss, CEO Gil Amelio took to the stage at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference and said Copland would ship as a series of upgrades rather than a unified single release. A few months after that, Apple effectively canceled Copland.

Today, Copland’s biggest legacy is that it pushed Apple to rethink its operating system strategy. That led to Cupertino buying Steve Jobs’ company NeXT — and Jobs returning to the Apple fold.

Do you remember the Mac OS Copland saga? Were you an Apple user at this time? Leave your comments below.