Will OS X Become macOS?

There have been rumours that OS X, the operating system for the Macintosh, will be renamed “macOS”.  I certainly hope so. Frankly, I think Apple pushing the whole “OS X” thing was baffling and an exercise in futility. I may not be a marketing person, but when the product’s name is confusing, that is a bad thing.

The Oddball

Consider the rest of Apple’s operating system world. The iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch run iOS. The Apple Watch runs watchOS. The new Apple TV runs tvOS. But the Mac? Well, it runs OS X. Yeah, that’s consistent.

Worse, most people outside hardcore Apple users don’t know how to pronounce it. Most people I know say “Oh Ess Ex” (if they use it at all). I’ve heard “awz ex” at least once. It’s confusing. And unless you know the history of how it got it’s current name, almost nonsensical.

The Naming Of An Operating System

OS X is “operating system 10”, as in the 10th iteration of the the Macintosh operating system. When the Macintosh first arrived, it ran “System”. Over time, we saw System 1 through 7. It didn’t have separate marketing (Microsoft was one of the few pushing their operating system as a brand, rather that just a thing you needed for the machine to work). Apple caught on later in the game, and starting thinking about packaging and logos and such for the operating system. Around System 7.6, it become “Mac OS”, so at least it got a name that was a bit more descriptive. It kept this name for Mac OS for a few years.

When Apple bought NeXT in 1996, it got their operating system, NeXTSTEP. NeXTSTEP was based on BSD UNIX, and included a powerful development framework for building applications (hence the “NS” prefix on a lot of the core objects in the Cocoa framework).

However, Apple couldn’t very well keep the NeXT brand. Despite their computers having some intriguing features, the NeXT machines hadn’t really set the world on fire. It’s image was still hobbled by a somewhat sluggish GUI environment and the bad image from the initial versions of the hardware that used the equivalent of a ZIP drive for the hard drive (which as glacially slow).

Mac OS 9, running on the PowerPC Macintoshes of the time, was old. It had seriously ceased to be “modern” at least 3 revisions back. When Windows was going to true preemptive multitasking, Mac OS 9 was still running a Switcher-like hack from the late 1980’s. Needless to say, someone noticed that “10” comes after 9, but Roman numerals were apparently cool, so NeXSTEP become “Mac OS X”, as in “Mac Operating System 10”. A bit jazzier than just “System”, but only a little.

Big Cats?

To distinguish the different versions (starting 10.0), Apple also gave them names, not just numbers. They appeared to sound like code names. For those who don’t know, products are often given code names in development. It helps identify the product without identifying the product (for example, the e-mail gateway I worked on at Microsoft was “Wormhole II”, as it was the followup to “Wormhole”, a riff on the stable wormhole from Star Trek Deep Space 9). An outsider knowing the internal code name could sound “cool”, as if they were “in the know”. By giving non-technical names to OS X, it made the code name official, and thus made all Macintosh customers “cool”.

So, we got Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar etc. At times it got repetitive (Leopard was followed by Snow Leopard, Lion was followed by Mountain Lion). Apparently there are only so many big cat names to go around.

Mountain Lion was the last of the big cat names. The joke at WWDC when 10.9 was being released, was “what Lion next?”. “Sea Lion?” Yeah, big yucks. Now they shifted: we’ll use California landmarks, but apparently they started obscure and went with Mavericks. No, nothing to do with Tom Cruise and Top Gun. It’s apparently a surfing location (at least I’m familiar with Yosemite and El Capitan).

At the time that Mountain Lion (version 10.8) was released in mid-2012, another change occurred: the “Mac” part was dropped. From that point on, the operating system would just be called “OS X”. It streamlined things a bit, but it also muddied the waters in my mind. The names are still unwieldy. Officially, the current operating system is “OS X 10.11 El Capitan”, although you’re supposed to say it “oh ess ten eleven El Capitan”, mentioning “10” only once. What happened to that other “ten”? Is the “ten” referring to the “X” or the “10” in “10.11”? And what, pray tell, does any of this have to do with a Macintosh?

Get With Reality

Apple needs to follow, not lead on this. Most people call the Macintosh operating system some variant of “macOS”. Why not? It’s consistent. It makes a pattern: “‘the thing’ Oh Ess”. Have an iPhone? iOS. A watch? watchOS. A TV? tvOS. See, “macOS” just fits.

It’s easier for people to figure out how to pronounce. It is truly a noun, rather than a random collection of letters. It’s simple, consistent and reasonably obvious. It gives up on the fiction that Apple is going to try to unify everything under a single operating system brand. Yes, technologically, the core of all 4 of these operating systems is the same. Fundamentally, they are all BSD systems under the covers (which means that I have BSD, long my favourite variant of UNIX, on my wrist). They share the same common core technology, which makes sense. But they present themselves differently, in ways that make sense for the platform.

Sure, the name of an operating system isn’t a big deal in the larger scheme of things. But it’s one of those niggling little annoyances that could be put away. Just call it macOS. Make it consistent, make it simple and make it happen.


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  1. Pingback: Thoughts on WWDC 2016 Keynote | Thoughts from Geoff Kratz @ FarWest Software

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