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ATPM 9.10
October 2003





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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Andrew Kator,

9 Ladybugs at the X Picnic

“Why are there Mac users still using OS 9?” is an ongoing question asked by many. With OS X’s stability, ease of use, and the obvious fact that OS 9 has been abandoned by Apple and other software developers, many wonder why anyone would still be using OS 9 as their primary Mac OS. This isn’t the first time these issues have arisen. Looking at some Mac background, starting in the 80s, can shed some light on things.

The Mac Plus (released in 1986) was not the first Mac, but it is often considered the model that created the “Mac standard.” It offered extra RAM slots and an external SCSI port, so it was the first Mac to offer more options for users to upgrade and customize their systems. The Mac Plus was produced for four-and-a-half years, and could run ten years of Mac OSes from Systems 1.1 to 7.5.5. This amazing computer established what was expected by many Mac users, that a Mac’s base hardware would have a useful and upgradable lifespan of a minimum of five years.

Between 1984 and 1996, Macs ran the 68000, 68020, 68030, and 68040 series of Motorola processors. There were a few “bumps” in software compatibility during the 68040 upgrade, but overall the platform was extremely kind to consumers by allowing them to run older 680x0 software on their newer Macs. For example, someone could run the same word processing and graphics software they purchased for a 68000-based Mac Plus on their newer 68030-based Mac IIci. Like hardware expectations, a Mac user could easily expect his software purchases to last five years or more.

In the middle of 680x0 Mac production, Apple began introducing OSes that offered radical new features. System 6 (1989) marked the end of a phase of evolution for the Mac OS. It was the last 24-bit Mac OS. System 6 offered the Finder for running one application at a time, useful for older machines with less memory, and the MultiFinder which allowed users to run more than one piece of software at a time. One major problem with System 6 was its 24-bit limitations, since by 1989 Apple was already selling Macs with the 32-bit 68030 processor. No matter how much RAM was installed (from 4 to 128 MB depending on the model), Macs running System 6 could only use 9 MB of RAM for software, with the rest used as a RAM disk.

In 1991 Apple introduced System 7, a behemoth that created more problems that it initially fixed. The disk space and memory required to run 7 were significantly higher than 6, making 7 much slower even though it could use 32-bit processing. Many software titles from 6 couldn’t run in 7 without updates and upgrades, and to make matters worse System 7 was bug-ridden and unstable. Many Mac users begrudgingly switched from 7 back to 6 because their computers became practically useless. Sound familiar?

Eventually Apple managed to make System 7 more stable and even more usable with 7.1. Different versions of 7.1 persisted through to the introduction of PowerPCs in 1994. The PowerPC brought RISC computing to Macs, but there were many problems in the transition. System 7.1.2 and subsequent updates emulated the 680x0 processor chipset to allow older software to run on PowerPCs, but that same emulation meant the overall speeds of the early PowerPCs were little if any improvement over their 68040 cousins. To make things worse, the usefulness and stability of System 7.1 wasn’t found in subsequent System 7.x updates, and in many cases it actually became pointless to upgrade the OS from the version that shipped with the computer. Some 7.x.x updates were specifically written to only run on certain models of machines and would be completely useless when installed on another. Of course this problem was usually discovered only after trying the installation. Apple got things under control in 1997 with System 7.6, but by that time many people had abandoned the Mac platform because it wasn’t offering its precedented reliability over PCs.

In July 1997 Apple introduced Mac OS 8, and in November 1997 they released the first G3s. System 8 offered most of what Apple had promised six years earlier with 7 and without the same stability and incompatibility problems. The G3s also had comparatively few problems since they were an evolution in the PowerPC family and most of the serious issues had been worked out with the earlier processor transition. One of the only major complaints at the time was the “premature” abandonment of some recent Mac models, since Mac OS 8 only ran on 68040s and PowerPCs. Mac Performas with 68030s were sold as recently as 1996, and their owners were left out of the Mac OS 8 upgrade path. Their Macs were made obsolete and unable to take advantage of the new OS in less than two years. It made financial sense for Apple to only support the more recent processors, but this strategy clashed with precedents for Mac hardware longevity. Sound familiar?

Mac history explains one of the most fundamental reasons people purchase Macs: they don’t want to waste their time with frequent and repeated upgrades. They want something that works now, and for as long as possible, with a minimum of fuss. The problem is that we are in another transitional period. It is natural to expect the longevity and durability of Macs and their OSes to conflict with the transition to newer technologies as we are experiencing with OS X. That doesn’t mean the older Macs and OSes are any less useful or functional, since they have the same features that made them superior options at the time they were purchased. Believe it or not, there are many reasons to still be using OS 9 instead of OS X.

The first reason can be simplified by the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” One of the primary reasons people use Macs is because they increase their productivity. Creative professionals and the publishing industry have gotten a lot of attention for this, but the same applies to scientists, engineers, and office assistants. Many people really don’t care what computer they use, as long as it does what it’s supposed to with the minimum amount of complication, maintenance, and tinkering.

Mac OS 9 still offers those advantages to many people. Anyone who assembled a complete system with peripherals and necessary software using OS 9 or earlier systems has a functional and productive tool that does what they need. For these people what they have does the job efficiently and with little or no maintenance because the bugs in their system were worked out years ago. They have no need to upgrade either software or hardware because what they have functions perfectly as a tool.

Suggesting that someone upgrade from a functional, comfortable computer that works well is dictating that these people abandon their productivity for days, weeks, or even months to install new software and hardware. New software and peripherals take more time than the 30 minutes required for initial installation, since getting the bugs worked out, functions tweaked, and personal preferences adjusted can take much longer. That is time dedicated to the computer instead of time dedicated to using the computer for productive work. Time is money, and time spent upgrading a computer, its peripherals, and software is money lost.

Money brings us to the second reason to stay in OS 9. Depending on the software, serious money can be required to upgrade core productivity applications to OS X. If all of the software has been incrementally upgraded each time a company has a new release, the upgrade costs per software title average around $150 each. With a suite of several products that require upgrading, a Mac used for productivity may cost as much $1,500 to upgrade ten software titles. Anyone who suggests that upgrading from 9 to X “only” costs $129 must be getting their other software for free.

Most software companies make more money from upgrades than from the original software purchases. Many of these upgrades do not offer significant added features over the previous version, but the upgrades are an ongoing revenue stream that is significant to a company’s profits. Many people do not upgrade with every release because they understand the upgrade revenue system or they just don’t feel the upgrades offer a value for the money. Upgrades may also present new bugs and changes to the way software is used that can affect productivity. It is very common in the professional sector for people to hold on to useful older software that is “outdated” or “archaic” because it does the job. After missing previous upgrade “opportunities” these people are not eligible for the OS X upgrades, and must spend the money to buy the full software version to replace their older products. This makes the OS X upgrade cost significantly higher.

The only things creating the opinion that most older software is archaic are the version number and the date of release. As an example, Adobe Photoshop has been around for years. In 1995 Photoshop was at version 3.5 and optimized for PowerPC processors, so this same software can be used on G3s and G4s running OS 9. Photoshop 3.5 offers many of the major features of Photoshop 7, and there is no reason it can’t still be used for professional work. For some people, Adobe never really offered them anything new that enticed them to upgrade.

Photoshop 3.5 also has something that 7 doesn’t: speed. 3.5 was created when PowerPCs ran no higher than 100 MHz, 128 MB of RAM was enormous, and a 750 MB hard drive was top-of-the-line. Because 3.5 was made to run on those more limited older systems, it offers efficiency missing from newer software. Running Photoshop 3.5 on a 500 MHz G3 with 512 MB RAM is an impressive experience, and running it on a 1.25 GHz G4 is almost unbelievable. Similar speeds can be experienced running other PowerPC software titles from years past on newer OS 9 Macs.

Speed issues have affected OS X since the beta version, and while Apple has made significant improvements with 10.2 Jaguar (with more expected in 10.3 Panther), OS 9 is still more responsive. It isn’t reasonable to expect someone with a two-year-old Mac to abandon their investment to buy new machines that are better able to match OS 9 speeds when running OS X, at least not when they get the same responsiveness from their older equipment.

Compatibility is still a problem preventing many users from upgrading to X. Many legacy applications, those great and reliable programs that many veteran Mac users have been using for years, are pretty much worthless in OS X. Many pieces of software written in 1994-95 can still run on 9 but not Classic. Some of these software titles have no counterparts in X.

Hardware drivers are finally catching up and becoming available, but many of the drivers are only available for the larger consumer market. High-end professional devices are still missing drivers. We can’t expect a newspaper or print house to upgrade to X when their printing equipment won’t work with the new OS. These problems are compounded by the changes in interface standards, where older but extremely expensive equipment is not designed for USB and FireWire. Businesses relying on hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in equipment are not able or willing to make the investment to replace functioning equipment just to run OS X.

Last but not least, efficiency of screen real estate is one basic thing that OS 9 has over X. Even with all of its years of evolution, OS 9 still uses the interface and display conventions of the original Mac OS, which displayed 512 x 384 pixels and eventually grew to VGA (640 x 480), SVGA (800 x 640), and XGA (1024 x 768). Now XGA is the minimum sized display standard with Macs, and XGA is necessary to use OS X for anything useful. OS X uses that “extra” space to present all of the pretty 3D effects and shadows, texturing, and transparency. These new interface conventions mean that windows, fonts, and information take up just a little bit more space on the screen, effectively making an XGA screen “feel smaller” than it did in OS 9. Because of its roots, OS 9 displays information more efficiently for “smaller” displays by using smaller fonts and without the fancy new interface conventions. It’s just easier to use OS 9 than OS X on XGA displays.

The OS 9 versus OS X debate really boils down to whether or not you are satisfied with what you have. There is nothing wrong with staying in OS 9 if it continues to offer usefulness and productivity. Many who suggest otherwise are not aware of or responsible for the finances involved with your hardware and software purchases, and many do not use their Macs for your tasks and cannot speak about your productivity.

Now that some of the reasons for staying in OS 9 are covered, there are some strong reasons to spend the money and make the switch to OS X that just can’t be ignored.

Stability is the one reason above all others to make the upgrade. The reliability of OS X more than makes up for the costs and speed decreases by increasing productivity. The occasional (or frequent) problems inherent to OS 9, such as system freezes, application freezes, and “unexpected quits,” are mostly missing from OS X. It is common for many OS X users not to reboot for months, and most mainstream OS X software has become undeniably stable with few, if any, quits or freezes. The stability alone increases productivity, even on older G3 systems that take a significant speed hit when running OS X. $2,000 in software upgrades is easily offset in the first year by the increase in productivity and billable hours.

In general, OS X takes “plug’n’play” to levels that OS 9 never reached. Internet connections are easier than ever using either dialup, DSL, or cable. As simple as OS 9 is, networking and server configuration is even easier in X. Many USB peripherals require no additional driver installation, and those that do are generally more reliable than they were in OS 9. Less time spent tinkering with things to make them work means more time spent doing something profitable.

The third reason to upgrade to OS X is less objective, but still valid: OS X is fun. Combined with the pleasures of its stability and reliability, OS X is also pretty. Some of the new interface conventions may take a few days to get used to, but OS X becomes addictive to the point that switching back to OS 9 feels dull and gray in comparison. OS X’s “eye candy” makes using the computer for several hours a day a more bearable experience. By itself, being fun isn’t a great reason to upgrade, but it makes thousands of hours of computer use per year more pleasant.

No matter how great OS X is, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to abandon their investments, including OS 9 software, to have “the latest.” Throwing something away that is still useful is a waste of resources, even if it isn’t as “cool” as something new. It is only logical to get the most out of what we already have before replacing it, even if financial resources aren’t a limitation. We should expect to see Macs running OS 9 for many years to come. As the older equipment dies, it will be replaced with new machines running OS X, XI, or XII.

There’s no need to rush things. OS 9 users will upgrade—eventually.

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Reader Comments (7)

Bob Booten · October 2, 2003 - 10:40 EST #1
So shut up and stay there. What's the problem?
Irwin Anolik · October 2, 2003 - 11:13 EST #2
Thank you for a thoughtfully written segment and an informative look at Mac history.

Bill Smith · October 2, 2003 - 11:22 EST #3
Well done article!

I couldn't have enjoyed it more.
Scott Kendall · October 2, 2003 - 12:24 EST #4
As a long time Mac user, I can really appreciate this article. I have had many systems: an Apple ][+, ][c, ][gs, LC, LC475, PM6100, PM8100, Beige G3, and finally a 1 GHz iMac. I have always loved how each major release of the OS had its differences, but they still have their similarities. OS X is no different, really. Granted the "eye candy" is the biggest change in X, but the ease of use that you would except Apple to have is still there. Just recently, I bought a Mac Plus (for nostalgia's sake) and fired it up under System 6. Amazingly (or not), a lot of functionality is still the same as in today's modern OS X. OS 9 users will switch. It is inevitable, but when they do, they will realize that OS X isn't as foreign as they now think it is.

For what it's worth, I am running the latest Panther beta release on my iBook and I think that the OS 9 speed is back in Panther. It is really very, VERY slick and fast!
Tomas · October 4, 2003 - 06:31 EST #5
Very good reading. This is my first time here and look forward to more informative articles.
Bill Wilson · April 18, 2005 - 21:51 EST #6
I installed OSX on 5 of my Macs at home, including 2 laptops, just to experiment, and left OS9 on the other 4. The kids prefer OSX hands down, as they have music to download and instant messaging to do. When I need to get something done, and quickly, I'm on an OS9 machine, because that's how my brain still works. I think a lot of folks have their mental processes mirroring an operating system and have a hard time changing.
Mark Rabich · November 6, 2005 - 19:32 EST #7
As a long-time Mac user, I despise OS X, for many, many reasons - not the least of which is the much publicized 'stability', which for me, has been demonstrably awful on several different machines, from G3 to G5, from 10.1 to 10.4. (BTW, most of these machines were set up by vendors) I have literally lost weekends because of this.

I have found that OS9 still kicks goals in terms of speed and intuitive interface features, and, frankly, all I have to worry about is getting on with my work (I'm a broadcast editor who has used Final Cut Pro from v1.2 to 5.0.2. with DV, Cinewave, Igniter and Decklink. I still use v3.0.2 on OS 9 very productively and earlier this year I bought a Windows machine (something I thought I would NEVER do) and found it to be quite stable and powerful. And usable.

I don't get why we are forced to have such a radical change in interface from OS9 to OS X (no Apple Menu, the Dock, window buttons all together, SHIFT Command-N for new folder, etc.) when many of these are clearly not an improvement. At least in Windows XP, you can go back to a previous Windows interface (if that is what you prefer), and switch off all of those 'eye-candy' animations that look good in the store, but are annoying when you just want to work quickly.

Widgets? Oh please. I just want to have an uncluttered interface and OS X breaks many of the foundational interface guidelines that made Macs great in the past. OS X is, for me, just another version of Windows. If something breaks in OS X, I have little chance of fixing it, which is just the same in Windows. At least in OS9, I had a few things I could try, (trashing preferences, base level extensions (that I can easily browse), program reinstall, clean system install, etc.) not the least of which was to have a backup boot partition that was literally just a 2 minutes drag and drop operation when I set the system up initially. But things have never been that bad that in 4 years I have had to use that last resort more than twice. Ghost? Don't make me laugh.

I know plenty of other users with similar feelings.

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