Today in Apple history: A phone call sows the seeds of OS X

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Today in Apple history: A phone call sows the seeds of OS X

November 25, 1996: A middle manager at NeXT is contacting Apple about the possibility of Cupertino licensing NeXT’s OpenStep operating system.

Garrett L. Rice’s communication with Ellen Hancock, Apple’s chief technology officer, is the first formal step in a long process. This ultimately leads to Apple buying NeXT, the creation of OS X, and Steve Jobs returning home to the company he co-founded.

Coplands fiasco

Apple’s decision to consider licensing NeXT started with the failure of Apple’s Copland project. The next-generation operating system never got further than a beta release released to around 50 Mac developers.

In 1996, Apple lost money hand over fist. The company desperately needed something that would allow it to compete with Microsoft’s dominant Windows 95 operating system. It was clear that licensing Mac OS to third-party vendors would not be the magic money maker Apple had hoped for.

Apple CEO Gil Amelio told Mac supporters that the company would unveil its new operating system strategy at the Macworld Expo in January 1997. Inside Apple, however, it was clear that this was more a matter of buying time than finishing the finer sides of a existing strategy for appearing before the public.

To be or not to be

One option Apple had on the table was to buy the BeOS operating system developed by the charismatic former Mac director Jean-Louis Gassée. (Gassée now writes the wonderfully insightful Monday note each week.)

BeOS debuted in October 1995 on the lightning-fast (and now highly coveted) BeBox computer. The first modern computer operating system written in C ++, it boasted impressive multimedia features. Features included symmetric multiprocessing, preventative multitasking, pervasive multithreading, and a custom 64-bit journaling file system known as BFS.

At the time, many thought it would suit Apple well. If nothing else, BeOS shared the philosophy of clear and manageable design that characterized the Mac OS.

Gassée allegedly tried to make a tough deal with Apple, with Bes’ investors holding on to $ 200 million. Apple pulled the line by paying more than $ 125 million. (“Thank God [Apple didn’t buy BeOS] because I hated Apple’s management, ”Gassée said later.

Next step

The other realistic option Apple had was the NeXT. The company had been Jobs’ main focus during his time outside of Apple (though his other company, Pixar, made him a billionaire). NeXT was ahead of its time in both software and hardware. But the company never quite lived up to its potential.

After abandoning its hardware business in 1993, NeXT focused exclusively on software in 1996. OpenStep was an open source version of NeXT’s NeXTSTEP operating system. The object-oriented, multitasking operating system was based on Unix, which later became the basis for OS X and later macOS.

In November 1996, Jobs spoke with Amelio again (albeit only very recently). Jobs told Apple’s CEO that Be was not the right choice for the company. The phone call on November 25 from NeXT’s Rice presented the option that Jobs definitely wanted all along: that Apple acquires the rights to put a version of OpenStep on Macs.

In early December, Jobs visited Apple’s headquarters for the first time since his removal. A deal would bring both NeXT and Jobs on board – the best decision Apple has made in years.

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