15 years of OS X: How Apple's big gamble paid off

When it debuted in 2001, it wasn't at all clear how the desktop OS would open the door to future innovation

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Lion and Mountain Lion make OS X more like iOS

One of the biggest themes of Lion, which arrived in the summer of 2011, and its successor in 2012, Mountain Lion, was the incorporation of iOS features, apps and user experience into OS X itself. Beginning with Lion, OS X has received a major update on a annual release cycle like iOS. Also noteworthy is that Lion was the last release of OS X that Apple charged money for -- all subsequent releases have been free upgrades. (Even then, Lion was a bargain compared to past upgrades as it maintained Snow Leopard's $29.99 price.)

Features built into Lion from iOS included a revamped Address Book app with an iPad-like interface; support for FaceTime calls; iOS-style autocorrect; support for automatic saving of application states and resuming of states on relaunch; Emoji support; a focus on full-screen apps; and multitouch gestures on Apple trackpads and Magic Mouse.

Under the hood, Lion also began to use iOS-style configuration profiles and Apple's MDM framework for managing Macs in enterprise and education environments. To this end, OS X Server got a Profile Manager tool to manage Macs and iOS devices as Apple began deprecating its earlier Mac management approaches. The move also opened Mac management up to a wider array of vendors as many MDM/EMM vendors could now offer Mac as well as iOS management capabilities -- a move that Microsoft later made in Windows 10.

In an effort to reposition OS X Server for the small- to mid-sized business market, Apple offered it as an optional add-on to Lion rather than selling it at a significant cost. Previous editions had cost $499 for a 10-client license and $999 for unlimited use.

Lion also introduced more security functionality, including extending FileVault to offer whole disk encryption and extending support for address space layout randomization.

To make file sharing easier, Lion also boasted AirDrop, which allows nearby Macs to share data over Wi-Fi even if they are not connected to the same (or any) Wi-Fi network.

Mountain Lion continued to make the Mac more iOS-like with the addition of an OS X version of the iOS Notification Center; an independent Notes app; revamped/renamed Messages, Contacts and Calendar apps; the introduction of Game Center support; and unifying OS and application updates into an automatic feature of the Mac app store.

Other notable Mountain Lion additions included AirPlay Mirroring, which allows an Apple TV to mirror a Mac's primary display; support for Chinese social media and sharing services; support for VIP users in Mail; and the GateKeeper security feature for verifying the reputation of apps acquired from outside the Mac App Store based on an Apple-signed developer certificate. Power Nap was introduced to allow some Mac models to sync content while sleeping.

Mavericks ends the era of Apple's big cats

Mavericks, released in 2013, became the first version of OS X to break with the tradition of naming releases after big cats -- at least in part because Apple was beginning to run out of options and there were repeated jokes that the company might have to resort to domestic cat breeds like OS X Tabby. Future versions are named for iconic locations in Apple's home state of California.

Beyond the name change, Mavericks introduced a range of new features, some completely new, others also borrowed from iOS.

It introduced an OS X version of Apple Maps, complete with integration into other apps and services -- most notably Calendar, with reminders about when to leave for events based on location and traffic/weather conditions -- as well as the ability to send map information to an iPhone for on-the-go use. Similarly, the iBooks app made the leap from iOS to OS X. Notification Center gained several new features, including quick-reply options for emails and messages, the ability to view notifications from the lock screen and support for notifications from websites.

Mavericks also significantly expanded the Accessibility options for OS X with new system control and display options for users with disabilities.

One particularly useful feature was an expansion of AirPlay support -- introduced in Mountain Lion -- that could turn an HDTV connected to Apple TV into a full-fledged secondary wireless display in addition to simply mirroring the primary display. Another was the introduction of iCloud Keychain for securely syncing passwords and other confidential information among Apple devices.

For enterprise and education, Mavericks simplified the process of enrolling Macs into a management solution using Apple's MDM protocol; added support for an application-layer VPN to ensure that only work-related apps routed traffic through the connection; bolstered FileVault key recovery options; and introduced more advanced passcode policies. Other security additions included expanded use of app and plug-in sandboxing and FIPS 140-2 certification.

Yosemite brings major OS X interface changes

The most dramatic thing about 2014's Yosemite was that it was the first major overhaul of OS X's appearance since Apple adopted the brushed-metal look in 2003's OS X Panther. The new "flat" interface mirrored the design language Apple adopted in iOS 7.

Yosemite's new look may have been the first thing anyone noticed about it, but the release also included significant additions that pointed to Apple's vision of desktop and mobile computing going forward.

The first major addition was Continuity, a collection of features that integrated OS X and iOS more tightly than ever before. The biggest of these features, Handoff, allows a user to begin a task on one device and automatically continue that task on another. The feature works with a range of apps including Mail, Notes, Reminders and Maps. Continuity also made it possible for any Apple device to make and receive calls through a user's iPhone (and to hand off those calls to the iPhone) and made tethering a Mac (or iPad) to an iPhone or cellular iPad for Internet easy and automatic; it even allows a tethered device's battery to display on the Mac.

Continuity's feature set alone is impressive, but it also points to Apple's computing vision. Although the company is committed to integrating its platforms and sharing functionality, Apple has been firmly committing to keeping them as separate platforms rather than trying to merge OS X and iOS. This contrasts with Microsoft's Continuum effort to create a unified Windows platform and experience across all the devices that it makes or supports.

Notification Center also received a major boost with support for third-part widgets and a Today view similar to that of iOS. Likewise, AirDrop got a notable upgrade in the ability to share content with nearby iOS devices as well as Macs.

Spotlight saw a major update, arguably the most significant since it was introduced. In Yosemite, it took center stage for searching content on a Mac, on the Web, for local businesses and for movie times via Maps, iBooks, iTunes, the Mac App Store, Wikipedia and various news sources.

The next biggest innovation introduced in Yosemite was the new Swift programming language that could be used to write apps for OS X and iOS. Swift is a modern and relatively easy to learn language for novices that set the stage for the future of development across all of Apple's lineup.

Finally, Yosemite was the first OS X version to be offered as a public beta since 2000's pre-release beta of OS X. Apple has continued to offer public betas of OS X as well as iOS releases.

El Capitan -- the 12th release in 15 years

The most recent version of OS X, El Capitan, was released last fall and focused largely on under-the-hood improvements to performance, stability and security. El Capitan features the Metal graphics API and several other performance enhancements. It also introduced System Integrity Protection, a feature that secures many system processes, files and folders against changes even if those changes were made using root privileges.

Although El Capitan focused primarily on unseen advances, it did introduce several new features, including a split-screen view similar to that on recent iPads, for viewing two full-screen apps side by side; improved window management in Mission Control; the ability to easily locate the cursor quickly by moving the mouse to enlarge it; better natural language search in Spotlight; a much improved Notes app that matches the functionality of Notes in iOS 9; public transit directions in Maps (though only for a limited number of cities); and a new system-wide font called San Francisco.

Taking stock 15 years later

Looking back, it's easy to forget what a gamble OS X represented for Apple in the beginning, but the gamble clearly paid off big time. OS X has stood the test of time. It provided Apple and its fans something to hold onto while the company began building iconic products -- the iPod, the iTunes Store, the iPhone, and the iPad - that would revolutionize Apple (and much of the larger technology landscape). OS X helped to propel the Mac to record sales in fiscal 2015, and growth has continued since then even as the PC market overall has continued to contract. It is without a doubt a major success story.

OS X also reflects the company it helped Apple to become. It has always been nimble, forward looking and willing to jettison technologies when required rather than becoming bloated by trying to hold onto years or decades of backwards compatibility. That ability, and Apple's care with its development, have made OS X a strong OS with remarkable staying power after 15 years.

OS X helped transform Apple -- and thus transform much of the technology world. Happy birthday OS X. Here's to another 15 years.

Next: Macs dent the enterprise, but not by much

This story, "15 years of OS X: How Apple's big gamble paid off" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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