Mac OS X Almost Didn’t Make The Cut

Posted by: Matthew Vella on April 21, 2008

150px-Leopard_Desktop.pngThe slick, ooey-GUI known as Mac OS X which – after years of neglect – helped make the Mac cool again, almost wasn’t. At least, that’s what former Apple designer and current director of user-centered design at Cisco, Cordell Ratzlaff, said today in his presentation.

Ratzlaff, also a former Frog designer, dropped a few tantalizing examples from his years as an Apple alum during a talk about how managers can change organizations’ cultures towards innovation. Ratlazz didn’t mince words in addressing the sometimes drastic steps he believes managers need to take to shake things up, including public firings, A-wall design, and shutting down lack-luster projects.

“Steve [Jobs] did a tremendous job of turning the business around,” he said of the period in the late 1990s when Jobs came back to Apple, engineering a turnaround at the troubled company. “But he did that also by changing the culture of the organization,” he added.

Ratzlaff recounted the early days of Mac OS X, Apple’s next-generation operating system based on Unix. Ratzlaff said that, initially, the company had planned to simply adapt its existing interface to new underlying technology it acquired when it purchased NeXT in 1996-7 (the transaction that also brought Steve Jobs back). Eventually a group of renegade designers helped create the concept for the entirely new system, working against the grain of the company’s initial strategy.

150px-Macosxpb.pngRatzlaff said that the early project had one designer tasked with grafting previous visuals onto a new platform. In general, many insiders weren’t interested in recreating Apple’s operating system at all. But, as the fledgling project hit various roadblocks, Ratzlaff says he and a group of designers began prototyping a new, sleeker interface without an official mandate. Initially, it was “just a couple of people screwing around,” he said. “We eventually built a prototype, showed it to Steve, and he loved it,” added Ratzlaff.

Ratzlaff also offered the example of the public firings that typified the company’s return to its now famous secrecy. Jobs, he said, fired the manager of the Newton project when he leaked information of that project’s termination. “It took a while, but eventually people got the message,” he said of the Jobs moves. Though harsh, these moves helped the company’s designers get back on track after a rocky period, Ratzlaff concluded.

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