The Most Enduring (and Endearing) Features of OS X Throughout the Years. Part I

Every new release of OS X brings a full complement of new features. As I was looking at the new features of Yosemite last week, I started thinking about what new features in each release have been significant and were brought into daily use — and which ones ended up just being gimmicks.


One of the things that has always interested me about a new release of OS X has been just which features were (with much respect)  thrown in to increase the head count and which ones were truly fundamental to my daily computing life.

Of course, there are many under-the-hood changes that indirectly improve one's experience with OS X. For example, in the early days of OS X, Cheetah, Puma and Jaguar, there were some serious performance issues. This was a big criticism at the time, and probably led to a slower than desired adoption rate.

Apple handled that, in part, by vectorizing a lot of GUI code with the use of the Altivec processor in the PowerPC Macs. In any case, these kinds of refinements, including the introduction of a Cocoa-based Finder down the road, the "Core" frameworks, HFS journaling, and other refinements made OS X faster and more reliable, but they're not the high profile features I'm thinking about in this article. Finally, this trip down my own memory lane is far from a history of OS X and should not be treated a such. (But if you find a error, let me know.)

Those Enduring OS X Features

The things I think about when a new release emerges are those that could fundamentally change my way of life. Some new features certainly appear to be fluff while others become hallmark features of OS X, and in a few years, I can't imagine living without them because they're used every day.

Cheetah and Puma (2001)

As I mentioned above, OS X 10.0 was the "let's finally ship it!" version. It was rough and even lacked the ability to play DVD movies. When 10.1 Puma arrived, I found it fast and reliable (enough) to "move in." The DVD player worked. While I ran Classic for years, I couldn't wait to make a BSD Unix my everyday, go-to operating system even though there were many more apps available for Classic by comparison. The Blue Box (ability to run Classic apps on the OS X desktop) was a stroke of engineering genius that saved the day in that regard. It remains as one of the most brilliant things Apple has ever done.

Jaguar (2002-3)

Starting with 10.2 Jaguar, Apple was feeling its oats in scientific circles and lots of books started to appear explaining the Unix aspects of this new OS. I think the major goal at this point was to mop up the to do list of things that didn't make it into early releases, and then fluff it up with things like Sherlock, Inkwell, junk mail filtering and so on. Obviously, the first two didn't survive and the latter was far better served by SpamSieve. Perhaps the most fundamental addition, in my book, was the Address Book (now called Contacts).

The lack of major features was, as I recall, offset by the emerging mystique of Jaguar as truly the next generation Apple OS, firmly in place and soundly implemented.

Panther (2003-4)

Of all the features Panther introduced, I think the one that made the biggest splash was FileVault. While I wasn't an early adopter at the time, it stood out because it was so important for my own customers. Also, because of the way I worked, I never really got excited about Exposé. Rather, I started using 3rd party implementations of multiple desktop software. Fast User Switching just turned out to be a fanciful (and insecure notion) that I never saw much use of.

Tiger (2005-6)

At this point, Apple was not yet driven by the needs of integrating with mobile hardware, and so, with performance and basics under control, Apple started to develop some really fundamental technologies that remain with us today: Spotlight, Automator and the "Core" technologies. The standout, of course, and the foundation for Yosemite's evolved search, is Spotlight. And I can't skip "Print to PDF," a standout feature to this day. Other features touted at the time just haven't stood the test of technology time: dashboard, Safari RSS (a bad idea in itself) and iChat AV.

Leopard (2007-8)

Leopard begins to feel like a modern era OS for Apple. Certainly, the hallmark innovation of Leopard was Time Machine. Apple recognized that people just weren't backing up up their Macs with any kind of serious tool or consistency. Time Machine made it as easy as connecting a drive and clicking a few buttons.

The second major feature of this release has to be Quick Look. That's a feature I have used almost every day, multiple times, since it was released. It has changed my computing life dramatically for the better.

Other major innovations in Leopard have stood the test of time: Boot Camp, Finder stacks, the Finder sidebar, iCal (Calendar), parental controls and Spaces.

Snow Leopard (2009-10)

This is the last version of OS X that shipped on DVD and was also that last release before Apple started to think seriously about the integration with its iPhone and iPad. (Not that that's a bad idea. Not at all.) As a result, I consider it the zenith of the desktop OS designed purely as a superb GUI on Unix, fit for the greybeard admirers.

Snow Leopard brought under-the-hood refinements like Grand Central Dispatch, OpenCL and a Cocoa-based Finder, but didn't fundamentally change my computing life. It did help my checkbook, however, as Apple started to depart from its $120-something price for OS X.

The Test of Time

Clearly, of the hundred or more features Apple has promoted for each release over the years, only a handful have stood out and changed how I do my work. (Aside from, as I said, fundamental under-the-hood refinements.) Of course, my own perspective is as a writer and researcher, not as, say, a graphics artist, musician or developer. That has steered me down my own unique path.

What about you? I'd love to hear from you in the comments about what OS X features endured over the years and changed your computing life. And which ones ended up being duds.

In Part II, I'll look at the more recent OS X releases and size up similar prospects for OS X Yosemite.