November 17, 1995 Apple is releasing the first beta version of its new Mac OS Copland operating system for about 50 developers. Not so much an update to Mac OS as a brand new operating system, it offers next-generation features designed to help Apple take over the then-powerful Windows 95.
Unfortunately, it will never reach the public.
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Mac OS Copland and Apple’s existential crisis
Copland was essentially an existential nightmare at Apple. In his great (and long overdue and updated) book Apple Confidential, author Owen Linzmayer with good reason titles his chapter on the project “The Copland Crisis”.
For years, Apple users and employees have (rightly) argued that Macs offer a far better user experience than the one “enjoyed” by PC owners. When word of Windows 95 began to spread, Apple knew it needed to dramatically rethink its operating system to stay ahead of Microsoft’s progress.
The Mac operating system didn’t just have to stay a little ahead. Given that Macs cost significantly more than PCs and are shrinking in terms of market share, Cupertino had to really push things forward.
With Mac OS Copland, Apple has tried to stay ahead of Windows 95
Apple announced Mac OS Copland in March 1994. Named after American composer Aaron Copland, it was supposed to be a complete top-down revision of Mac OS, years before Steve Jobs did it with UNIX-based OS X.
It included many features that will seem familiar to today’s users. This included Spotlight-style “live search” on the toolbar and more comprehensive multitasking. It even allowed different users to log in, each with different desktops and permissions. Although it is a common occurrence today, it was not heard at the time.
Consistent with this adaptation, Copland was also “thematically capable.”
Users were able to choose the topic they liked best. Options included a futuristic look in Dark Mode style and a lighter theme adapted for children. Visual flourish extended to the interface using 3D shading and colors in a way that is completely new for Macs.
Similar to the functionality of today’s Dock, or Windows taskbar, Mac OS Copland made it possible to minimize windows by swiping to the bottom of the screen, where they became tabs. Another big change: Apple designed Copland as the original PowerPC, with older programs running through the emulator.
So what went wrong with Mac OS Copland?
Apple never released Mac OS Copland. Following the beta version in November 1995, the company continued to return the timeframe for full release. Originally planned for 1996, it slipped to 1997. All the while, Copland’s budget was steadily growing as there was a full attraction of functions. The more Apple put it off, the more the company felt the need to promise new features to justify the delay.
In 1996, 500 engineers worked on Mac OS Copland, with a huge budget of $ 250 million a year. Have you heard the phrase “too big to fail”? Copland was too big to succeed.
When Apple announced a staggering $ 740 million loss that year, CEO Gil Amelio took the stage at the World Developers Conference and said Copland would ship as a series of upgrades, not as a single release. A few months later, Apple virtually canceled the project.
Today, the biggest legacy of Mac OS Copland is that it has forced Apple to rethink its operating system strategy. This led to Apple eventually buying NeXT – with Jobs returning to the company he helped found.
Like much of what Apple did in the 1990s, Mac OS Copland was an extremely promising piece of technology that never fulfilled its potential. However, while most such products were at least released for sale, Copland only managed to come out on 1 Infinite Loop in a very limited, heavily stunted beta.
Remember the news about Mac OS Copland? Were you an Apple user at the time? Leave your comments below.
Sources: Apple Confidential i Low End Mac
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