Ten Years in the Making

Ten years ago today, Apple started off on a new path, sparked by the company's decision to acquire NeXT. It was a real challenge to sit down and write about this because there are a lot of pieces that just don't make sense when put into words. Still, I think it's worth trying because it's an interesting story.

At the time, practically everyone had given up on Apple, and the conventional wisdom was that focus should shift to Windows. To the casual observer, there was no clear difference between the Mac and Windows, other than the fact that the Mac's software architecture had been pushed to the limit.

On top of this is the reality that it's all just computers. Is it really important which icon you double-click on or which line of code you write? To be honest, it's really not that important, but I think that's somewhat beside the point.

For Apple employees, along with developers and users, the reason for hanging in there was they believed in making something better. For an artist, painting a mural or carving out a sculpture doesn't necessarily save lives but it does satisfy something deep inside to make the best thing we possibly can.

That is the idea behind the Mac. For some it's paintings, photographs or symphonies. For Apple, it's computers.

This philosophy was still intact at Apple, but it wasn't being channeled. I don't think this was an issue of incompetence on the part of management — I think it was the fact that Apple is an enigma. Business school doesn't really prepare you for it.

Culture Clash

NeXT didn't entirely resonate with Mac users. A lot of people in the inner circle expected Apple to purchase Be instead. The BeOS seemed a lot like the Mac, used a more mainstream C++ environment, and already ran on PowerPC processors.

NeXT was Unix and it ran on Intel-based PCs. So we have a Unix-based operating system which runs on Intel computers and doesn't even use C++ for development. Surely you are joking. This isn't the future of the Mac, it's the anti-Mac. The only thing the deal had going for it was Steve Jobs was coming back, and you can't get any more Mac than Steve Jobs.

The first months were pretty rough. Apple was stripped down to the bare bones and started the process of building back up — all under the considerable pressure of needing to continue selling products to the public.

A lot of the decisions were controversial at the time — buying out Power Computing, canceling projects some saw as pivotal, and basing the Mac on Unix. In some cases, the decisions affected years of work on the part of engineers. Slowly though, people started to get it. It wasn't apathy, it was about focus.

Just Hang in There

As hard as it was to see the light at the end of the tunnel, enough of the right people just hung in there because they believed they were heading in the right direction. If they hadn't done that, there'd be no iMac, no iPod, no Mac OS X, iTunes Store, or Apple retail store.

No iMovie, iPhoto, iDVD, MacBooks, or Xserve. No TextMate, no Delicious Library, no Keynote. Likely no Ruby on Rails. We might all still be using serial ports, floppy drives and wired internet connections. And who knows what in the world I'd be doing. Not writing C# code, that's for sure.

By simply doing the best with what they had at the time and focusing on the current moment, Apple was able to win several small victories at a time, giving them the flexibility to take progressively larger steps and more daunting risks. And now it's all paying off in a big way.


It's tempting to say Apple could have avoided all of this by licensing clones earlier, or pursuing a different operating system strategy, but I don't know if I really buy that. We're here now because of what happened then, and now is pretty amazing. Who's to say it would have ended up better if different decisions were made?

It's one thing to gain a position of influence and hold onto it. It's something else to have it all, lose it all, and then win it all back again on your own merits. Which case speaks more to character? In a way, Apple is untouchable now because they can truly said they've been there and back again.

One More Thing

If you had to sum up the last ten years in three words, it would certainly be the phrase One More Thing. Normally, "one more thing" just means an afterthought. But in Apple's subtle brand of sarcasm, One More Thing means you thought it was over, but it turns we've saved the best for last.

(And just keep us all on our toes, not all keynotes actually feature a "one more thing" segment, because that would be too predictable and therefore, not as special.)

I don't think this could fit the last ten years any more perfectly. Many thought Apple's first decade would never be matched by later efforts, but that was proven wrong.

It's hard to put a finger on, but this really does feel like the end of a long and, at times, difficult journey for Apple and all of the developers and users that depend on them. We're about to enter a new year and a new decade with a new operating system. The future's wide open.

I think that's why everyone continues to keep an eye on Apple, even if they're not particularly involved. The simple fact that you never quite know what's going to happen next activates some innate curiosity. So we all watch to wait and see.
Design Element
Ten Years in the Making
Posted Dec 21, 2006 — 13 comments below


Gavin — Dec 21, 06 2797

Scott, this is great. I began working for Apple just shortly after their acquisition of NeXT, and this brings back many memories of that time. There was a lot of discourse between staff from all divisions about the course of the company. So many visions of the future, so many options to choose from. Apple certainly was broken down and then rebuilt. It was an awesome time full of baited breath and high expectations.

Happy anniversary Apple, and Mac OS X!

ssp — Dec 21, 06 2798

For my taste saying that the Mac is like symphony or a painting is going a bit too far. It's primarily a tool, a means to an end.

It's like having a violin rather than a cheese grater to play a symphony on.

Bill Coleman — Dec 21, 06 2801

Couple of interesting historical points.

One person to remember is Ellen Hancock. She was brought in as CTO under Amelio, and one of the things she had to deal with was the complete foundering of Copland. Copland was the next-generation of the MacOS, meant to replace System 7. It had been in development since 1992 and by the summer of 1996, it missed yet another integration deadline. Ellen had the guts to pull the plug and search for a different solution, which culminated in the buy-out of NeXT.

Perhaps the most interesting bit of this transistion is how she totally pulled a Mikhail Gorbachev. If you remember, Gorbachev was the last president of the USSR. Under his leadership, they began a program of perestroika or "restructuring". This program eventually lead to the collapse of the USSR and the rise of indenpendent soviet states. In short, Gorbachev led himself right out of a job.

In a similar way, Ellen Hancock helped to pick the best solution available and ended up being out of a job.

The second interesting historical point has to do with licensing of the MacOS. The conventional wisdom has always been that Apple should have licensed the MacOS to others, and that when they began to do so in 1996, it was too late.

However, this is wrong. Apple licensed the MacOS a decade earlier, and this license is exactly the reason that Windows still dominates. Apple licensed certain UI elements to Microsoft in 1985. In retrospect, it was one of the stupidest business moves ever, because it gave Microsoft carte blanc to copy the Mac. (Microsoft wasn't very blatant with their copying until the Apple / HP-MS case was withdrawn in the early 90s. The most obvious evidence of this is the change of the cut,copy,paste shortcuts in Windows 3.1 -- which went from unmemorable combinations with the Ins and Del keys to the familiar Ctrl-X, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V)

Of course, Apple isn't to be entirely blamed. The license was part of a quid pro quo from Microsoft so that MS would renew the license of AppleSoft BASIC. AppleSoft was a key component of the Apple ][, which was Apple's key money-maker in 1985. So it made some sense in the short term. While the conventional wisdom is that Apple lost the desktop market for not licensing the MacOS, the truth is the lost the market because they DID license it], which was Apple's key money-maker in 1985. So it made some sense in the short term.

While the conventional wisdom is that Apple lost the desktop market for not licensing the MacOS, the truth is the lost the market because they DID license it.

oomu — Dec 21, 06 2802

>For my taste saying that the Mac is like symphony or a painting is going a bit
>too far. It's primarily a tool, a means to an end.
>It's like having a violin rather than a cheese grater to play a symphony on."

the author means here than for Apple, it cares to do a BETTER computer. as an artist want to do a better paint

you can speak of violin, we could say Apple is like the stradivarius of computers. if you want to follow his arguments.

I do think computers are tools. but the tools can be perfected, liked and in the end be marvelous. A tool matters too.

Uli Kusterer — Dec 21, 06 2804

Can't it be both a tool and a work of art? Certainly if you've ever held a violin in your hands, you've realized this is a beautiful piece of art, as well as an incredibly powerful tool.

Julian Grey — Dec 22, 06 2818

Art is not what you do. (make computers)

Art is how you do it. (what are your computers like)

In this age of Microsoft's fantasy competitiveness, it's hard to see the amazing feat that succeeding on the merits of your products really is.

Erik M. Buck — Dec 22, 06 2819

in 1996, I owned one of the most successful of the NeXTstep based software businesses. We produced high end development tools for aerospace (and games). Think Interface Builder for cockpits (and games). Our software was used via NeXTstep for SPARC and NeXTstep for Intel and later Openstep for Solaris and Openstep for Windows NT.

From 1997 through 2001, I attended WWDC and heard Mr. Jobs first promise free YellowBox runtimes and then inexpensive runtimes and then no runtimes. At the same time, the crowds at the WWDCs were openly hostile to all things NeXT. There was a perseption that NeXT took over Apple. The "stump the chumps/experts" events were a stronghold of the luddite guard. In fact, whenever a question about NeXT derived technology was asked, the panel refused to answer. The audience would boo down the person who asked the question.

It was a dark time to be a fan of what became Cocoa or EOF or D'OLE. It was a dark time to be in the business of Openstep software. As it happened, I was in San Jose for a Game Developer Conference when there was an informal Mac OS X 10.0 release party held at a winery in Sonoma. I know quite a few former Nexties and was graciously invited to the party. It was a blast, and I heard very encouraging stories about the changing culture inside Apple. Cocoa training classes were taking place inside Apple, and some of the internal ice and resentment was finally breaking (after the release).

In a related story, my company's largest customer was Rockwell Collins. Ironically, Gil Amelio was a former Rockwell Executive before moving to Apple. Back in 1997, it seemed that the world was a small place and the future of NeXT technology was secure at Apple. Later, when Apple refused to sell more Openstep licenses at any price, it became a crisis for my company and a problem for my customers. The small world became a large dark dangerous place. Apple has added great features to Openstep, but some features were dropped and have still not been restored.

It is my uninformed perception that Mac OS X saw the light of day in spite of the great majority within Apple and not because of it. To the extent that OS X and Cocoa are works or art or at least artful tools, it is (I think) owed to a very small number of people. Ten years later, it is clear that David had to defeat Goliath to deliver anything. As Mr. Jobs said, real artists ship. Thank goodness they did.

Scott Stevenson — Dec 22, 06 2821 Scotty the Leopard

when there was an informal Mac OS X 10.0 release party held at a winery in Sonoma

I actually remember this. It was either Mmalc or Robert that sent the email announcing it.

mmalc — Dec 23, 06 2834

I did remember organising a BANG winery trip to Sonoma, but I didn't remember it was in celebration of the release:

BANG X celebration.

(my memory for this sort of thing is notoriously unreliable...)

Regarding Erik's recount; it was at around that time that I was doing a lot of Cocoa training in Cupertino. I believe I eventually taught several hundred engineers in all.


Daniel Jalkut — Dec 23, 06 2837

It was, in fact, one of mmalc's Cupertino Cocoa classes that set me down the path of learning Cocoa. Thanks, mmalc! :)

Jim Roepcke — Dec 24, 06 2843

Oh, that Sonoma trip, I actually forgot about it! Yeah, it was in honour of the Mac OS X release, and it was a great time. A little windy, but that just added to the excitement. :-)

I also recall seeing Woz in person for the first time during the launch party at the mac store across the street from 1 infinite loop. It was a great year to be living in SF!

Chris — Dec 26, 06 2898

Ellen had the guts to pull the plug

Total BS. Ellen had no clue what she had, and she and Amelio were too incompetent to figure it out. You could have had a microkernel under OS 9 three years earlier, and still had AppKit on top of it, providing a 'modern' API, by 2001.

What Steve Jobs provided that saved Apple was not the NeXT assets. Amelio et al were about to run those into the ground too. It was understanding the technical bits at the executive level, for the first time since Sculley forced Jobs out in 1985. And it was relentless, laserlike focus on executing a plan, any plan would have done, and executing it well.

Delta — Dec 27, 06 2903

Apple learned a lesson - every OS last a least twice as long as expected. (Ultrix, VMS, Classic Mac OS) Outstanding NeXT programmers told me the want an Intel Switch 1997. No port to PPC. I was rather sceptic then. But all trouble hat to do that Apple killed the wrong OS 1995, AU/X instead of Copland.
But since two years I'm happy - the old NeXT tools come to live - Power plant is dropped to zero. And I'm quite surprised that the developer are faster as expected even with a view to M$ soft.


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