Today in Apple history: Steve Jobs spells out a new strategy for Mac OS

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Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs introduced the world to OS X.
Photo: Ben Stanfield/Flickr CC

May 11: Today in Apple history: Steve Jobs spells out a new strategy for Mac OS May 11, 1998: As part of his mission to turn Apple around, Steve Jobs spells out the company’s strategy for the Mac operating system going forward.

The company will ship Mac OS 8.5 and the first customer release of an OS called Rhapsody that fall, he says at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California. The big news, however, is that Apple is hard at work creating a major new operating system called OS X.

Revitalizing Apple’s operating system

Bringing a new operating system to Apple provided the impetus for Jobs to rejoin the company in the late 1990s. In his years away from Apple after his failed boardroom coup, Jobs founded a new company called NeXT. At first, NeXT made computers. But by 1993, this strategy failed. Jobs then focused the company on producing software instead.

After ditching its hardware division, NeXT partnered with Sun Microsystems to turn its NeXTSTEP operating system into OpenStep, an attempt to create a cross-platform, object-oriented API standard. NeXT’s software brought several big advantages. An object-oriented, multitasking, UNIX-based operating system, it proved far ahead of what most companies offered at the time.

Apple, meanwhile, struggled with its own operating system. While System 7 worked better than the smash hit Windows 95, the gap between the rival operating systems was narrower than many Apple fans wanted to believe. For several years, Apple poured resources into developing Copland, a new OS that supposedly would give the Mac the edge it needed.

However, Copland never got any further than a public beta. After its lead engineer left, the OS got canceled by then-CEO Gil Amelio after Apple announced a staggering $700 million quarterly loss.

Around this time, Jobs returned to Apple when the company acquired NeXT with the goal of developing a new operating system.

Steve Jobs’ two-becomes-one strategy for Mac OS

In July 1997, Apple introduced Mac OS 8. While well-received commercially and critically, it didn’t represent the top-to-bottom refresh of Macintosh operating system many deemed necessary.

Mac OS 8.5 was therefore something of a stopgap. However, it did introduce a few neat features like the Sherlock search utility, antialiasing font smoothing, themes that could change the default Apple Platinum look and various other performance upgrades. It ultimately shipped on October 17, 1998.

Apple’s Rhapsody operating system, meanwhile, supposedly would smooth the transition of Mac OS to an OS based on NeXT’s technology. It used NeXTSTEP 4.2 as its starting point, then Apple-ized it using a look and feel that resembled OS 8. A Rhapsody Developer Release shipped in August 1997, but no home version ever came out.

The birth of Mac OS X

Instead, Apple wisely folded much of the Rhapsody technology into OS X, which first shipped for Apple’s new Mac OS X Server 1.0 operating system in 1999. It arrived on Mac OS X in 2001.

In hindsight, Apple’s strategy of focusing on two different operating systems, which would then fold into one, confused people. It seemed especially strange given the radical simplification Jobs pursued on the software side.

Nonetheless, this was an incredibly exciting time to be an Apple fan. Jobs painted a compelling picture of how the next few years of computing would play out.

What are your memories of Apple from this time? Leave your comments below.