The Roots of MacOSX

Steve was drawing things out, as he is wont to do. We’d seen demonstrations by Adobe, we got to see the iBook’s new larger look, he’d prattled on and on about the virtues of iPhoto, we were getting restless. We wanted to see IT. Whatever Steve Jobs had up the sleeve of that black mock-neck we wanted to see it. In all fairness those of us that are rabid weblog addicts had already seen it. Slashdot had broken the news the night before when ‘Time Canada’ plastered it all over their website. It was the new iMac, and inside the ‘reality distortion field’ that Steve Jobs projects at every MacWorld keynote, it was insanely great.

Editorial notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

The introduction of the new iMac was a huge event for Apple. After all, at its heart Apple is a hardware company, focused on selling cool boxes of silicon to comsumers. The introduction of Apple’s new operating system, Mac OS X, in many ways will have a more lasting impression on the computing world’s landscape. When IT people look at their landscape they don’t see the huge lamp-shaped shrine to the new iMac, they see the past, transmuted into a stylish, Jobsian vision of the future.

OS X began to trickle out to the public in 2000. Officially that’s pronounced OS ten, but as you’ll see that X has more connotations than the roman numeral. OS X was touted as being based on UNIX, and inheriting some of the technology acquired from the NeXT buyout. In reality, it’s a fair assessment to call it NEXTSTEP 5. As if caught in some freak transporter accident where two entities are fused into one it appeared that the old, archaic Mac OS and NeXT had fused to become Mac OS X.

Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple in the late 1980s when his managerial style clashed with that of then CEO John Sculley and others in Apple’s management. It was a bitter departure, with Jobs quickly founding NeXT Inc. Hoping to repeat his success with the Macintosh Jobs brought the NeXT Cube to the world, but the world wasn’t listening. NeXT was perhaps ahead of its time. The object oriented programing paradigm was different from Mac to be sure, and the adoption of UNIX at its core appealed to the monkish UNIX crowd, but it was lost on the Mac faithful that Jobs knew how to market to. NeXT was also overpriced, costing more than twice that of a decent PC or Mac at the time. NeXT floundered, eventually dropping its hardware component and became a purely software company.

The computing world had all but written off NeXT when Apple bought it in 1996. Apple was in trouble. It had been attempting to update the Mac OS for years, with a string of code name projects, such as Copland and Rhapsody, all of which were stillborn. In the meantime Microsoft had managed to catch, and then surpass Mac in the OS race with Windows 95 and NT. Apple needed to acquire the technology that it had been unable to produce on its own or it would diminish into a bit player, and eventually into the computer platform graveyard with Amiga and Commodore. Enter NeXT.

NeXT, and by inheritance Mac OS X, is at its base almost as old as the original Mac OS. Indeed, with its UNIX roots it can be argued that OS X is actually older than MacOS Classic. OS X can trace its roots back through FreeBSD, through BSD UNIX, and eventually back to Bell Labs and the birth of UNIX. Something important had changed though since Steve Jobs tried to market NeXT in the late eighties, UNIX had gotten hip, thanks to a computer science student in Finland, Linus Torvalds.

The ’90s saw the birth, growth, and then explosion of Linux, the operating system that Torvalds created and set free onto the unsuspecting Internet. A new generation of geeks and compsci students flocked to the idea of owning their very own UNIX system, tweaking, playing, creating. The quickly evolving Internet enabled gaggles of programmers to collaborate on the new operating system. Linux evolved from a study project into a fully-featured operating system at an unprecedented rate. Suddenly the cool place to be was running Linux.

However, Linux was pretty much a niche OS for use by knowledgeable digerati. It excelled in running the servers that were needed to quench the hunger of the exponential growth of the World Wide Web. As desktop system for average users however it was clunky and intimidating. Linux, and UNIX, was powerful, that much at least had filtered through to the public via the media. It was in front of the back drop of the Internet revolution, the heady days of the late ’90s, when every computer dweeb worth his salt claimed to be running Linux at home that Apple and Steve Jobs announced Mac OS X.

Jobs had primed the pump with success such as the iMac and a departure from the beige boxes that plagued Apple in his absence. Apple was hip again, out of Wal-Mart and into The Sharper Image. Now Jobs combined great hardware with great new software that, amazingly had the same roots as the golden child of the moment, Linux. Linux on an iMac, what could be more insanely great than that?

Mac OS X can still run applications written for the older Mac OS in what is called ‘Classic Mode’. This is little more than a very slick Mac OS Emulator written inside OS X. When you start the Classic Environment you even see the old Mac OS startup screen, with the ever familiar smiley face. Apple has also provided libraries that allow specially modified programs to run natively in Mac OS X. The process, called Carbonizing, after the name of the supporting libraries, is only an interim solution though. What Apple really wants is for developers to use their ‘new’ Cocoa environment.

The funny thing though is that at its base the Cocoa environment is, you guessed it, NeXT. Even the library names give the charade away. NSDocument, a base library in Cocoa, stands for NEXTSTEP Document. Cocoa is a pretty slick environment to work in. It’s possible to whip up a simple text editor in minutes and the proliferation of developers out there adopting Cocoa and creating applications for the ‘new’ Operating System is growing quickly. One only need look at software announcement websites, such as, to see this.

At its heart Mac OS X is a descendant of FreeBSD. The Apple engineers used FreeBSD as a blueprint for OS X, however there are differences at the heart of the OS. At the very heart, the OS X kernel is based on the Mach project at Carnegie Mellon University. However where most UNIX people interact with the system, at the shell, Mac OS X greatly resembles a BSD-based UNIX, albeit with a few Apple twists.

Within weeks of the release of the OS X Public Beta people began to port applications to the new OS. Because of Apple’s shaky relationship with the GNU folks Mac OS X ships with almost no GPL code, though the developer tools do have the GNU C Compiler at their core. Most UNIX users make use of at least a few GNU tools, and work porting these apps began quickly. To be fair to Apple, many tools could be compiled as is, without any tweaking of the code required. The porting initiative has bloomed in the wake of OS X, sprouting such projects as Fink, which is porting many many UNIX and Linux apps to OS X, and MacGIMP, a port of the popular free Photoshop-grade graphics tool.

By the time Apple released Mac OS X 10.1 in August 2001 there was a quiet buzz taking off in the UNIX and Linux community about Apple’s new/old OS. Apple did a very smart thing when it released the 10.1 update, they gave it away. What may have otherwise been an upgrade, such as Windows 98SE, Apple gave away to anyone who stopped by an Apple retailer. 10.1 was a major upgrade in performance. With 10.1 many people started using OS X as their primary OS, and interestingly it began to gain converts in the UNIX world.

UNIX System Administrators and programmers are monkish curmudgeons more often resembling Ted Kaczynski than the hip designers and artists that have been Apple’s core clientele. However as the buzz around OS X took wing UNIX people quickly snatched up PowerBooks, iBooks, anything to be able to communicate with the business world while keeping their familiar UNIX.

This is where some of Apple’s future lies. To be sure Apple will continue as a consumer computer manufacturer. It has spent the last two years preparing the Mac faithful for the conversion away from their old trusty OS and will most likely continue to bottle-feed the newly converted for the next two years as well. However if Apple is to grow into markets beyond their core they need to capture mindshare in those other markets. The UNIX and Linux market just happen to be an easy sell for Apple.

About the Author:
Gary Rogers is a system administrator who survived the Internet boom (and bust). He has administered most major UNIX distributions as well as Windows NT/2000. He has been swallowed by Steve Jobs’s Reality Distortion Field(tm) and is now a Mactivist extolling the virtues of OS X to any UNIX person that he can get to listen. You can reach him for comment at [email protected].


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