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Is Mac OS Classic Nostalgia a Bad Thing?

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.