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  • Is Mac OS Classic Nostalgia a Bad Thing?

    March 27th, 2008

    I suppose we ought to pity those who have been around the tech universe for a long, long time, such as yours truly. I mean, some of the things we accepted as state-of-the-art in those days, such as 800K floppy disks and 100MB hard drives, seem downright primitive today. Please don't get me started about using tape drive for basic data storage, as opposed to backups.

    And didn't Bill Gates once say you'd never need more than 640K of RAM on your PC? In those days, when I got my first Mac with 8MB RAM, I thought I was in memory heaven. That was until System 7 came along, and I realized the system could take up to half that amount, and leave me a lot less for running real applications.

    Well, certainly you don't to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear. After all, personal computing has come an awful long way since then, and just having Macs running real Unix under the guise of Mac OS X has provided a huge dose of stability and security.

    So I suppose I wasn't surprised to get a comment from a reader about whether it makes sense to bring back Classic Mac OS features. The reader gave an emphatic no, as if anything that's old is necessarily bad and all good ideas must be new.

    Now I can understand that point of view, as someone who always lusts after the latest and greatest, assuming I can afford it of course. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that some really useful ideas haven't been tossed away in the quest for something with a more recent creation date.

    Take the Location Manager that I mentioned in yesterday's commentary. Yes, I think that, in some respects, it was better in Mac OS 9, because it was more full-featured. Today it may be somewhat more seamless, but it's also relatively simple-minded.

    When I referred to improvements in the Open/Save dialogs, I mentioned Default Folder X, which is actually just giving you many features that it had in its Classic version, plus some more wrinkles to take advantage of the latest Leopard eye-candy, such as QuickLook. Indeed, when you look at this utility and Boomerang, that venerable dialog box enhancer of the 1980s and 1990s, you'll see useful and time-saving features that today's Apple has yet to grok.

    That is really unfortunate, because there's so much Apple can do to enhance your user experience without inventing anything really innovative. Just take what has gone before, give it a fresh coat of paint and see how it flies.

    Another lost feature is the extensible Apple menu. Why must you depend on a third-party system enhancement such as Fruit Menu to allow you to add the items you want? Again, this is a throwback to a previous-generation of the Mac OS, yet it worked just fine. Why did Apple have to abandon it? It's not as if they can't write the code in a reasonably quick fashion, or that it can't be done natively in Mac OS X. I suspect if they put a pair of software engineers to the task, they'd come up with a useful, fully functional and appropriately flashy Apple menu alternative in a matter of days.

    Of course there's a problem with some of the system enhancements that restore Classic Mac features, or perform other miracles in the Mac OS X environment. If Apple isn't providing official system hooks to add those features, they have to do a little magic -- sometimes a little mischief -- and do a few tricks that aren't really supported. As a result, whenever Apple releases a major system upgrade, the utilities become incompatible. Worst, if they're still installed, they might seriously impair the stability of the new system, so you have to remember which ones you installed and make sure they're removed before upgrading.

    Even then, you may hold off reinstalling your system toys until you know for certain they will operate without difficulty in Apple's new Mac OS X release. That, of course, is by no means certain, so you have to check the publisher of the utility, or your favorite (and we hope reliable) Mac troubleshooting site for a confirmation that it's safe to restore.

    Naturally, I don't want to put independent developers out of business. While some do it as a hobby, others develop software to earn their way through college, or even feed their families. With such a difficult economy, you don't want them to lose their sources of income.

    At the same time, Apple needs to pay heed to what people use to dress up their Macs, and see if making them core system functions is a better idea. Sometimes it might be, sometimes not. But certainly if the solution comes from Apple and it's native to the operating system, there's a better chance it'll be compatible. When Apple does an update, they'll update all or most of the features as needed.

    In the end, I do not for a moment believe you have to abandon everything that was left behind in the good old days. Not everything is obsolete. Maybe, as I said, a shave and a haircut is all they need to prove once and for all that everything old is new again.



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    14 Responses to “Is Mac OS Classic Nostalgia a Bad Thing?”

    1. Scott Crick says:

      With regards to your question about the Apple menu: I really don't understand why this is such a bad thing that the current Apple menu is not extensible. You can do the same thing you could with the Apple menu is Mac OS Classic by using a folder in the dock. In Mac OS X 10.5.2, put a folder full of things you want to be in the menu into the dock. Set the Display as "Folder" option in the Dock menu for the folder and voila! Instant "Apple Menu". Just as extensible and modifiable. What's the issue here?

    2. Dana Sutton says:

      Yes, I miss the old Apple menu. But what really bummed me when OSX came along is that it lacks any way to assign user-defined tasks to F-keys, something to which I had grown very addicted in OS9 when I discovered how I could use these keys to improve my workflow. What really blows my mind is that Apple currently markets a keyboard with no less than nineteen F-keys -- and still hasn't addressed this question (somebody ought to introduce Apple's hardware guys and software guys to each other). Yes, I know that there are third-party applications that do this, but, first, I agree that many third-party gizmos have some capacity to degrade or destabilize a Mac's performance, and the less such things we have to use the better. And second, of course, one has to buy these gizmos and it's annoying to have to pay for what we used to get for free.

    3. David says:

      I agree with you that there were some really good tools in the Classic days, things that actually improved productivity, that shouldn't have been left behind.

      Back in the "good ol' days" of System 7.x and MacOS 8 I purchased enhancements like Now Utilities, Default Folder, Action Files and FinderPop. I customized the Apple menu a bit and added my own menus with the aforementioned 3rd party tools. I also played around with Kaleidoscope and custom cursors, the kid of "fun" things that make a computer truly personal but which Steve Jobs has always hated.

      Today I work differently and don't have a single custom menu on my machine, but I still avoid launcher style utilities, even the really good ones that make Apple's Dock look embarrassingly limited. Oddly enough the thing I miss most from the old days is my old cursor. It was a bright red arrowhead shape (somewhat bigger than the standard pointer) that was always easy to find on any cluttered desktop. With today's large displays it's much easier to lose your cursor location and I find myself shaking the mouse dozens of times per day to find where it is.

      Dana. Go get yourself a freeware tool called Spark. It lets you assign custom keyboard shortcuts for app launching, doc opening, iTunes controls and much more. It's my current "can't live without it" tool.

    4. Dana Sutton says:

      David, go System Preferences > Universal Access > Mouse and you'll find a control that adjusts the cursor size. Especially if you have a large monitor you'll find this is a real help. I already use Keyboard Maestro to program F-keys (and I recently discovered that by using this program's macro feature I can assign new keyboard commands to individual programs, so that I could kiss the haxie Menu Master goodbye).

    5. G. I. says:

      Yeah some useful UI stuff has gone, but the Classic system had rotten core. Compared to UNIX systems of that era it was a crappy toy (e.g. memory "management").

    6. javaholic says:

      I remember after using Classic MacOS for years, the first few releases of OSX felt like the result of an internal power struggle between Classic and NeXT engineers. Some features I had relied on to enhance my productivity were smoked in favour of, ugh, - the dock. Six years on I still don’t use the dock and prefer to use 3rd party utilities that meet my requirements over Apples solutions (or lack of). Then there’s the spatial Finder – but we won’t go there :).

      I guess if you’ve never had much exposure to the ‘Classic’ environment, on the surface it may all seem a bit lame compared to today’s solid, multitasking OSX. However, it was things Apple used to do, like actual R&D into User Interface design, that helped shape the MacOS into a really productive tool, not just a shiny one.

    7. I remember after using Classic MacOS for years, the first few releases of OSX felt like the result of an internal power struggle between Classic and NeXT engineers. Some features I had relied on to enhance my productivity were smoked in favour of, ugh, - the dock. Six years on I still don’t use the dock and prefer to use 3rd party utilities that meet my requirements over Apples solutions (or lack of). Then there’s the spatial Finder – but we won’t go there :).

      I guess if you’ve never had much exposure to the ‘Classic’ environment, on the surface it may all seem a bit lame compared to today’s solid, multitasking OSX. However, it was things Apple used to do, like actual R&D into User Interface design, that helped shape the MacOS into a really productive tool, not just a shiny one.

      Actually I was working on Macs pretty much from the beginning. Yes, I know the limitations internally. I was addressing features, not the quality of the system's guts.

      Peace,
      Gene

    8. Lots of very nice features in OS 9. Remember Shutdown Items? How about being able to drag a virtual disk (mounted from a disk image) to your hard drive and having it automagically become a folder? The dock takes up screen space and limits window sizes; the Apple menu of OoS 9 (and the great utility Alias Menu--also available for OS X) simply reside in the white bar and take up zero screen real estate. Now I truly like a lot of the features in OS X, but many are useless or worse (hate widgets and the eating of processor cycles). How about those horribly ugly folders in Leopard? They look like a cartoon version of Windows folders. (Geez, I miss ResEdit, but have learned how to dig into packages and use Inteface Builder--not too bad.) And I used to be able to use a simple AppleScript to arrange my several hard drive icons on the Desktop--no longer. And icons are windows now! The present generation of Apple developers don't even know how to make the background transparent on icons. And Labels worked on the folder color and not just the title. Heck, I could go on and on, but it wouldn't do much good. Perhaps many of the best of the OS 9 developers at Apple are gone by now or else somebody would remember the elegant features and implement these concepts in OS X (without breaking a substantial percentage of expensive and essential third party apps for lots of folks).

    9. Brett says:

      I still hate the OS X dock! It tries to be too many things at once: an app launcher, app switcher, notification indicator, document organizer, minimized window holder, and trash receptacle/disk ejector. The dock is full of surprises that are hard to understand without study (ie.: folders can't be placed on the left, applications can't be placed on the right)

      Occasionally I inadvertently drag an icon off the dock; it disappears in a puff of smoke, and there is no undo to restore it. How un-Mac-like! The dock is frequently in the way. Even after I hide it, the dock manages to pop out at inopportune times to intercept clicks intended for a window. Currently just a graze of the cursor to the edge of the screen is sufficient to unhide the dock. I've tried relocating the dock to different edges: on the left, I accidently hit it when trying to close windows, on the right, when I use the vertical scroll bar, on the bottom, when I try to resize from the corner.

      I'd like to see an option to keep the dock hidden until I make an unmistakable gesture such as slamming the cursor to the edge of the screen with high velocity, or holding it steady against the edge for 1 second.

      If only Apple would make the dock optional, and its API available, so that 3rd parties could offer first-class dock replacements... (sigh).

    10. TheJ says:

      The issues you are observing are the result of features being re-implemented over and over and over again on new foundations. Through the history of computing, technology improves and changes (hardware, processors, OSes, new platforms [web, java, flash]) but the way people work hasn't changed much and UIs haven't changed much since the late 80's as well. So what we have are new implementations of the same UI stuff on top of new foundations. Every time this happens, it is re-implemented slightly different; something lost, something new, something mangled.

      Personally, this drives me nuts. A new foundation comes in and now all the features that I relied on are gone or buggy. Maybe they come back with update and maybe not. Mac OS X is a great example of this. through it's history we see this happen. In fact, Mac OS X appears to be a re-implementation of Copland (the original Mac OS 8 that was never released) on a new foundation. Compare the main features of Copland to what we have in OS X now and you will see LOTS of similarities.

      The iPhone is doing the same thing to the Newton too. There are even articles on the web today about handwriting recognition coming to the iPhone. Yah...Newton 2.0.

      I'll even go so far as to say this is completely intentional; recreate/reinvent the Personal Computing ecosystem every decade or two to keep business booming.

    11. Charles says:

      Basically, I use OS X for web browsing and email.

      If I want to get anything done (like, work or productivity stuff) I still like to use OS 9.

      I have a ton of applications that I just know how to use, and don't want to have to re-learn on OS X, or have buy an upgrade to, or find a new alternative for.

      Planned obsolescence...good for executives, bad for users....

    12. Basically, I use OS X for web browsing and email.

      If I want to get anything done (like, work or productivity stuff) I still like to use OS 9.

      I have a ton of applications that I just know how to use, and don't want to have to re-learn on OS X, or have buy an upgrade to, or find a new alternative for.

      Planned obsolescence...good for executives, bad for users....

      There's very, very little to relearn for Mac OS X, and every single significant Mac productivity application is available for Mac OS X and, in fact, Intel-based Macs. If you are still using Mac OS 9 for your work, you are using stuff that largely predates 2000, and that's really old.

      If that suits you fine, but I hardly call wanting an operating system that hasn't been updated in 9 years a way to rebel against planned obsolescence.

      Peace,
      Gene

    13. Yacko says:

      >> I have a ton of applications that I just know how to use, and don’t want to have to re-learn on OS X, or have buy an
      >> upgrade to, or find a new alternative for.

      > There’s very, very little to relearn for Mac OS X, and every single significant Mac productivity application is available for
      > Mac OS X and, in fact, Intel-based Macs

      Framemaker? Infini-D? Write Now? Some people do like the old stuff. I wish Sheepshaver had a vigorous new feature/bug fix cycle for OS9 junkies. It works, is kludgy, but the current state seems to be the best we will ever get. The last significant builds seem to be from 2005.

    14. Under those circumstances, I can see you wanting to live with 1990s software.

      Peace,
      Gene

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