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  • The Leopard Report: Is Apple Ignoring Vintage Mac Users?

    November 14th, 2007

    Yesterday’s commentary, about bringing back Classic Mac OS features, scored more comments than any article I’ve written in recent days. No, it’s not the result of my peerless prose, although I do hope that helped a bit. Instead, I made some argumentst that struck a nerve or two on the part of many long-time and extremely loyal Mac users. There’s a growing feeling that they are being taken for granted as Apple becomes more and more of a mainstream company.

    You see, way back when, Mac users were regarded as the cool eccentrics who had learned to “Think Different” when most of the rest of the personal computing world turned to Microsoft. We all knew we had the best computer on the planet, and pitied the lesser folks who had been taken in by the broken promises of Windows.

    It didn’t matter that a Mac, at least in those days, was more expensive than a Windows PC, or that a lot of the software was unavailable on our computer of choice. It didn’t even concern us when we discovered that when more and more Mac developers went hunting for gold on Windows, for better or worse. Some formerly devoted Mac users went with them, but that was their loss.

    Well, a lot has happened since those heady days. Apple has gone to the brink and returned with the iPod, iPhone, and Intel-based Macs that are really getting substantial market share. The MacBook and MacBook Pro are especially popular with more and more people who might never have embraced the Mac platform even a few years ago. Tech pundits — at least the ones that don’t devote a fair amount of time to trashing Apple — talk of the unexpected revelation that they really like Macs after all, and it’s time to ditch Windows for good.

    You can understand, I trust, that Apple is not in the business of catering strictly to a niche audience when there’s a huge market out there to be conquered. They’ve already conquered the consumer electronics world with the iPod, and the iPhone may soon follow suit, if only in the unique category it created of the feature phone with smartphone capabilities.

    Some suggest Apple’s switch to Intel processors was the move that opened the floodgates. Certainly using much of the same hardware as a PC means that Macs can be priced more affordably, and it’s also true that Intel has the momentum these days when it comes to building the fastest processors on the planet. But even if Apple has to buy chips from AMD, aside from ATI graphics processors of course, there would be few, if any, compatibility issues.

    But it’s also true that a lot of long-time Mac users appear to be upset that Mac OS X doesn’t contain many of the cherished features that they grew to love over the years. When you look over the various comments from some of you responding to my article on lost Classic Mac OS utilities, you’ll see a laundry list of the things that they miss, and the fervent wish that Apple ought to take them seriously and bring them back in a future version of Mac OS X.

    It’s not as if Apple couldn’t restore the Scrapbook or the functional equivalent of Super Boomerang to Mac OS X, not to mention all the other goodies that were released over the years. Indeed, the presence of Default Folder X clearly indicates that a superior Open/Save dialog box enhancer is possible and doable, and I sometimes wonder why Apple hasn’t simply gone to programmer Jon Gotow and invited him to join the company and share his expertise. Of course, they could simply buy the product outright or — in the fashion of the schemes they’ve pulled from time to time — simply invent their own variation. But I’d rather see Jon get some recognition and a little cash out of such a deal.

    You can make a long list of handy utilities that have no functional equivalent under Mac OS X. Even such things as the return of the Finder’s Put Away command would be welcomed, and, again, none of this represents a really insurmountable development obstacle for Apple.

    Believe it or not, though, there is a huge roadblock in the way of some of this happening. One is that there are only so many things Apple can add to an operating system before it comes time to sit down and really make it happen. It may indeed be that millions of Mac users out there simply don’t care about any of these vintage features, or at least not enough to clamor for them.

    That may be the biggest problem of all. You also have to be realistic about your expectations. Apple has been burying the past, gradually, for years. From the first day Mac OS X became the default system on new Macs, Apple has been digging Classic’s grave. Of course, there’s a practical reason for this. It’s costly to maintain compatibility with the past, and it also limits growth to some degree.

    I know that many of you wish Apple hadn’t set such stringent system requirements for Leopard, but many Macs that are four to six years old can run Mac OS 10.5 with at least acceptable performance. Contrast that to Windows Vista, where you may be out of luck with tens of millions of PCs that are but a year old, and even the low-end lines available today may have difficulty coping with the overwrought resource requirements of Vista’s Aero interface.

    One of the most significant issues that prevented Apple from building Copland — its failed industrial-strength operating system project in the 1990s — was the demand to make it compatible with very old Macs and Mac applications. Microsoft has gotten itself into big trouble sticking with lengthy backwards compatibility for both software and hardware accessories, not to mention numerous system configurations, many of which are custom-built by hobbyists. Development projects take much longer, and application and peripheral conflicts are still legion.

    Apple has chosen the lean and mean path, sticking with only a small number of models. Within reason, there is backwards compatibility for several years, but no longer. In another two or three years, the newest Mac OS X release might even ditch the PowerPC, although any upgrade coming before then will likely remain compatible.

    So as much as you might not like it, Apple succeeds by envisioning the future, not living in the past. And that often means some things have to go. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to continue to comb through the dusty archives of past Mac OS software to find something old that can emerge as something new all over again.

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