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The history of Apple Mac OS X

The origins of Apple's successful OS

Ten years after its beta debuted, we look at where the ultra-successful Apple Mac OS X operating system came from

The NeXT connection

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs started NeXT in 1985 just as he found himself forced to resign from Apple. Jobs sought a quick rebound with a fresh new company and began assembling a team of talented engineers and programmers (many culled from Apple, much to that company's chagrin) to craft the ultimate research workstation.

While seeking the fundaments of an advanced operating system to match NeXT's ideas for innovative hardware, a new approach to UNIX architecture caught the eye of Jobs and his team. It was an experimental OS kernel christened 'Mach' that was under development by graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University. The most prominent of these students was a 24-year-old named Avie Tevanian, who had begun the Mach project as part of his PhD in Computer Science.

A kernel lies in the heart of every computer operating system. It is a piece of software that controls the most basic functions of the computer and serves as an intermediary between the hardware and higher level software that runs on top of it. Tevanian's Mach kernel was unique for its time in that it gained added functionality from pre-compiled modules that could be shifted around and updated without the need to start from scratch every time the kernel author added new features. To put it simply, this gave Mach a far more flexible and modern structure than previous UNIX-compatible kernels, and it was this novel quality that attracted Jobs's attention.

It wasn't long before Tevanian found himself working for NeXT and developing a new graphical operating system around the kernel he developed at CMU. NeXT's OS felt similar, superficially, to many GUIs before it, but beneath its surface lay fundamental differences gained from its object-oriented nature, its advanced display capabilities, and its UNIX underpinnings. NeXT called the resulting product 'NeXTSTEP', and the OS made its debut along with the NeXT Computer in 1988.

The NeXT Computer was a startlingly advanced machine for its time, but a very high price held it back - even for NeXT's target market of academic research. NeXT's hardware business struggled along for the next few years, and Jobs eventually pulled the plug on the company's computer line. He decided to focus entirely on software, especially the company's much admired NeXTSTEP OS.

NeXTSTEP evolved further in the early 1990s, gaining versions for multiple non-68K processors like SPARC and Intel's x86 line. NeXT also decided to split off NeXTSTEP's object-oriented programming system into a product called OPENSTEP that could run on top of other OSes like Solaris and Windows.

Jump back to 1996, when Apple was looking for a replacement OS. Steve Jobs heard of this search and pitched NeXTSTEP to Apple executives. They liked what they saw, and in December of 1996, Apple announced it was purchasing NeXT with the goal of using NeXTSTEP as the foundation of a new Macintosh OS. Along with the announcement came news that Steve Jobs would be taking an advisory role in the company. In a stunning turn of events, the founder was back.

NEXT PAGE: Rhapsody

  1. The origins of Apple's successful OS
  2. The NeXT connection
  3. Rhapsody
  4. Enter OS X
  5. The OS X legacy

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