The Mac OS and I, Part One: Two esteemed writers ask the OS 9 question.


Nathan Thompson

Originally Posted: 2006.06.08

In the past couple weeks, three distinct articles, authored by three different individuals, posted on three separate websites have tickled my brain enough to prompt a nice blog entry or two, or even three on the subject. All three articles deal with the Mac OS on some level and strike me as particularly relevant to my own state of Mac OS use. The two articles I want to explore today both deal with what, if any, part Mac OS 9 continues to play in today's OS X computing landscape.

Is Mac OS 9 Still a Player

The first article, Is Mac OS 9 Still a Player takes a nice look at the relevance of Mac OS 9 in today’s Mac OS X world. Written by Charles Moore, a long time Mac user and journalist, who draws the line of demarcation for OS X with those Macs sporting at least a 500 MHz G3 processor and 512MB RAM.

I would put forth my own experience with slower systems and Mac OS X to be slightly more accommodating to even older Macs. Anything with at least 256MB RAM and a G3 processor will be okay for a less demanding user. Someone who only runs one or two simple applications at a time, such as an email client and a web browser, could get by with even an original 233 MHz Bondi Blue iMac. Similar vintage beige Power Mac G3’s are a more complex install because many features are marginalized or downright abandoned by Mac OS X. If you have one of these models, expect to do without the floppy drive or AV ports, and only tepid support for the onboard Rage video chipset. Obviously, the older the system the least likely OS X will run at an acceptable level without decent upgrades to the processor, RAM, hard drive, and/or video card.

If more demanding use is needed from an older system, maybe Mac OS 9.2.2 (or an even earlier version) would be the better operating system choice. Charles Moore and I seem to be in agreement here.

Charles Moore:

On the other hand, if you have a slower PowerPC Mac, I think OS 9.2.2 is still your optimum operating system choice - although in the case of 601 and 603 PowerPC Macs up to, say, 166 MHz, you’re probably better off running Mac OS 8.6 or even OS 8.1.

Case in point, my mother’s G3 iMac has a 500MHz G3 processor and 256MB RAM. I was the original owner of this iMac and when the system was purchased new back in the year 2000, 256MB seemed like all the RAM I would ever need. Mac OS 9 could concurrently run my web browser, email application, iTunes, AppleWorks, and later my preferred graphics suite, Canvas 8, and still have a little RAM left over. Sure, the old bugaboos, no memory protection or preemptive multitasking, would rear their ugly heads on occasion The system could become unresponsive while whatever task hogging the system would work itself out, or even freeze/crash the entire operating system. Yet, when I settled on my preferred applications, control panels, and system extensions, I could go a few days of heavy use without needing to reboot.

Fast forward to 2006 and the iMac is now called upon to perform comparatively simple operations, email and web browsing. Unfortunately, Charles is right about Mac OS 9 and earlier revisions lacking quality choices for web browsers.

Charles Moore:

It’s still very fast, and there are lots of excellent production programs like word processors and image editing software that run very satisfactorily for serious work, but the biggest shortcoming of OS 9 now is the lack of a really satisfactory and up to date browser, and no major email clients are still being developed for the classic OS. With Eudora 6.1 or, if you must, Outlook Express 5.2 still available for Classic, the latter is not a big problem yet, but the browser issue is.

I do think the iCab 3.0 betas{1}, but are very good and have many advanced features to give any browser a fun for its money. Unfortunately, the development process has not yet concentrated on rendering speed and iCab 3.0 feels noticeably slower than other modern browsers. The limitations of the classic Mac OS can exacerbate the feeling of slowness when the system momentarily freezes while some complex AJAX website is slowly being untangled. The other web browsers mentioned by Charles Moore are WaMCom (a Mac port of Mozilla 1.3.1, note there is also an alternative port as well) and Internet Explorer 5.1.7, all of which are decent enough under the circumstances. With email software, I think there is still a decent selection of applications capable of handling most needs. Maybe not in the league of OS X, but my preferred email client for all my 68k and PPC Macs is SweetMail (English translated site), which still does everything I need it to do except for IMAP support. For more on web browsing options, feel free to browse the links from my Embracing Obsolescence profile (the earliest articles are the ones you are after).

I cannot argue against all the improvements OS X has given to the Mac community. Clearly, the transition from OS 9 has proven a great boon for Mac users. One of two major improvements over the classic Mac OS is the way Mac OS X handles memory. Once upon a time, great swathes of RAM could, and often did, sit unused while awaiting manual memory allocation. Virtual memory was an on/off proposal and had to be manually allocated when turned on. With the current Mac OS, users can enjoy the stability gained from a much more robust memory management system. OS X is a great cat and your memory is the prey. Given this odd analogy, this great cat will hunt down every last byte of available RAM and every running task, whether created by the operating system or a running application, will be properly fed. No more quitting an application, selecting “Get Info” to manually allocate memory, and then restarting the application. Once we Mac users diligently quit applications in reverse order from startup to avoid fracturing the already precarious manually allocated memory blocks. With Mac OS X, users launch and quit applications willy nilly. These newcomers don’t understand our old Mac tricks and they want to act like monday doesn’t follow sunday. Okay, even I am at a loss with that bit of verbal tomfoolery.

No more do we have to suffer through random crashes caused by a lack of allocated memory, although the spinning beachball does rear its ugly head in OS X, especially when physical RAM is under 512MB. Maybe the great cat analogy is not so awful, because Mac OS X is a hungry beast and will gladly devour as much RAM you toss its way. Better monitor those pageouts, if you have more pageouts than pageins, it may be time to pop in some more RAM. Opening OS X’s Terminal and typing top will give you the data you need about memory usage.

The other major element lacking in the old Mac OS was preemptive multitasking, which is key for allowing Mac OS X to continue chugging on when multiple applications are vying for attention. Ever the responsible parent, OS X listens to all the various running tasks screaming look at me, look at me, yet deftly maneuvers back and forth between each demand, allowing all the applications to continue playing well together. As the responsible parent, OS X know the value of sharing system resources. While iTunes is busy burning a CD, switching over to Safari and browsing eMusic for more music to download should flow nicely without a noticeable pause.

With the old cooperative multitasking model used by the classic Mac OS, things sort of worked the same. While burning a CD with Audion (actually, Audion passed that baton over to Toast), switch over to iCab and start browsing through eMusic for more music to download. Dollars to donuts (if only I knew what half the phrases I throw out there really meant), a series of pauses, some minor and some annoyingly long, will interrupt your workflow. Where OS X is the responsible parent, the classic Mac OS is the bad babysitter unable or unwilling to cope properly with the demands from itself and other applications. It’s lackadaisical response to sharing system resources does not carry the same authority as governed by the responsible parent’s demands. This condition is best illustrated by this very simple test. If you click and hold the mouse button on some pull down menu, popup menu, or other action, the whole operating system grinds to a halt until you complete the selection. Everything from a web browser loading a page to the clock in the menu bar stops. Fun times.

Why then keep the classic Mac OS around when OS X has implemented such needed changes? Indeed, who could get by without such necessities required by modern personal computer users? Charles Moore’s rationale for why users continue on with older Mac OS versions is quite simple — hardware limitations and software limitations. Not every Mac technically capable of running the classic Mac OS, will run it well, and some Macs are utterly incapable of running OS X. There is the PearPC method, but this procedure is more for kicks than to accomplish an actual running system. Other hardware issues could be finding replacements or adapters for printers, scanners, drawing tablets, and other misc input and output devices. Next, is the software cost found when switching to OS X. Some applications will never be ported to OS X, some do not even play well within Classic (which is disappearing with the last PPC Macs anyway). If you can find an adequate replacement OS X application or there is an OS X native version, there may be a significant cost involved with switching.

{1} Note from 2019: The iCab link resolves to the current iCab download page, there are no current betas for Classic Mac OS, just the stable 3.0.5 release.

The Tiger Report: A Memo to Mac OS 9 Users

The equally esteemed Gene Steinberg, asks similar questions about the viability of Mac OS 9 in his article The Tiger Report: A Memo to Mac OS 9 Users.

Like Charles Moore, Mr. Steinberg is a long time Mac OS user. Through their respective outlets, I gather both writers are very familiar with the ins and out of the Mac OS. While neither represent themselves as code junkies or programming inclined in the least, I will make a long distance determination that both are power users. Judging from their writing and in the case of Gene, his audio work as well, both spend a good amount of time tweaking, testing, and optimizing their respective work flows. By such usage, learning much along the way about the different versions of the Mac OS.

Gene, best known in recent years as the host of The Tech Night Owl LIVE radio show/podcast and cohost of The Paracast, is a self described early adopter. Not only with new software, but I gather he upgrades his systems very frequently, certainly more often than myself or even Charles Moore. Not only does Gene upgrade his systems frequently, he seems to want to grab the fasted new Mac systems currently available.

Where Charles Moore takes the standpoint from a similar place as myself, we both spend most of our time browsing the web, reading email, and writing articles, Gene comes from more of a multimedia standpoint. After all, he spends a significant amount of time working through audio production with his radio shows, and it would stand to reason such a user would require a little bit of power. Still, Gene makes an interesting point. Mac OS 10.4 Tiger is an awfully good operating system and has many compelling reasons for any user to upgrade to this latest release of the Mac OS. He is quite right about OS X being a great system and sums up some of the basic difficulties users had or will have when switching to OS X.

Gene Steinberg:

You have also been asked to consider Mac OS X. All right, I understand that it's very, very different, and not just the stuff that's happening under-the-hood. Despite its superficial resemblance to the Classic Mac OS, things have changed, sometimes drastically. You can't customize the Apple menu without the help of a third party utility, control panels have been replaced by System Preferences, and there's no Chooser.

Worse, you no longer have to cope with the quirks of a single Fonts folder, but several, for the single user, for all users, the network and even specific applications. For years, you coped with with PostScript and TrueType fonts, not to mention the original bitmap faces, and now you will have to deal with OpenType and something with the file extension .dfont.

Just as important, what's this thing about file extensions? Isn't that something that Windows users deal with? What's going on here?

I think this point is a very fair description of possible difficulties arising from the jump to OS X. It’s one thing to have to learn how the dock operates or the file hierarchy of your user account, but what happens if OS X starts misbehaving. All those years spent troubleshooting the classic Mac OS are no longer applicable to OS X. This issue could be very unnerving to former power users who know the ins and outs of the classic Mac OS. Charles Moore has also made mention to the same ease of troubleshooting with the classic Mac OS in comparison to OS X. This new fangled operating system is indeed a different beast, apparently a great cat if you believe Apple’s marketing or my own feeble attempts to find analogous examples.

Yet, I am some how able to jump back and forth on a weekly, if not daily basis between Mac OS 8.1, 8.6, 9.1, 9.2.2, and 10.2.8. Sometimes I even go back to System 7.5.5 when I need to access my two LC IIs. Wow, remember when the Mac OS was called System. Sure, things are different, but not too different to acclimate oneself. After all, Mac OS X is no more confusing to the Mac user than Windows or a Linux distribution like Ubuntu. I should make clear, Gene’s piece never attacks holdouts of the classic way of doing things nor is his tact condescending or mean spirited to us Luddites still using the old system. The tone is a pleasant enough inquiry into the hearts and minds of those users still sticking with the classic Mac.

Gene ends by making it abundantly clear that economic realities often force us to get by with what we already have, and that rationale needs no further explanation.

Gene Steinberg:

Feel free to post your reasons why you are avoiding Mac OS X, and not just financial. That I understand, and no explanation is necessary.

Reading the comments from the blog entry makes it interesting to see other Mac users reasoning for sticking with the classic Mac OS. Again, most issues can be traced to wanting or needing to run an application not available for OS X, although the Classic environment is sometimes a decent compromise when running older software within OS X. Not perfect of course. For example, Coaster and some other audio applications I use will not run in the Classic environment, nor will they be ported to OS X. Also, some users require access to legacy hardware. Nothing terribly different from the Charles Moore analysis. Finally, there are the classic Mac interface fanatics who harp on every fault of Mac OS X’s usability. I think this quote is best able to sum up this sentiment:

From the Mac Night Owl’s comments:

Solo Says: June 2nd, 2006 at 11:04 am

OS 9 was usable, OS X is stable. What kind of choice is that? I want it all, baby!

The first of three.

After all my rambling, and was I ever on an incoherent lark today, those readers still with me are probably waiting for the insightful counterpoint dealing with why OS 9 is still viable. Well, wait you shall, because this entry was focused primarily on why OS X is a grand old thing with all the gee whiz features needed in today’s rough and tumble world of personal computers. Part two, will finish my little point, counterpoint indulgence about OS 9 and OS X. Wrapping things up neatly will be part three’s wild ride into an even farther out of left field craziness.