Change: Sometimes We Embrace It, and Sometimes We Hate It
Low End Mac Staff - 2011.08.05
At Low End Mac, we love our older Macs, we appreciate the ability to stretch them forward using new versions of the Mac OS and new software. We get excited about projects like Classilla and TenFourFox, which bring open source Firefox technology to unsupported hardware and operating systems.
That said, we're among the most vocal when Apple makes a change that impacts our workflow. We were disappointed when OS X 10.5 Leopard required an 867 MHz G4 or better - and we were among the first to report on workarounds that enabled users to run Leopard on 350 MHz and faster G4 Macs. We are very disappointed that Apple has removed support for PowerPC apps with OS X 10.7 Lion, because there's really no good reason to do so - Rosetta has allowed Intel Macs to run PowerPC software since 2006, allowing us to keep using software we are familiar with that meets our needs.
We don't complain for the sake of complaining. We are not opposed to change as long as it is progress. But sometimes Apple seems to make arbitrary changes that feel like a slap in the face for longtime Mac users, which most of our writers are. We are Mac users. Macs are our tools. And you shouldn't redesign a tool that works without a good reason.
That is the subject of this, the first Low End Mac round table: What Apple changes have most benefitted you? And which changes have most frustrated you?
Allison Payne (The Budget Mac): I sort of live in two worlds when it comes to Apple gear. On the one hand, I've collected and shaped a set of tools that have served me very well through the PowerPC era, and it's hard to give those up when Apple does things like drop FireWire support and remove optical drives or Rosetta. On the other hand, I absolutely love some of the advances they're making in the realm of usability for the average user, portability, support for virtualization, and raw speed and extended battery life with the adoption of SSDs and lithium polymer batteries.
So far, I've found an equilibrium by maintaining a working G4 PowerBook to handle all tech support work for that era, and I've kept an ear to the ground about up-and-coming hardware/software, actively looking for good replacements for some of my more critical tools, like Target Disk Mode and file recovery software. Apple has shown uncanny foresight when it comes to orphaning defunct technology (floppy drives, anyone?), and they haven't yet used up all my faith in their ability to provide me with good tools for the future.
Austin Leeds (Apple Everywhere): I think I speak for many, many people when I say that embracing the USB standard was perhaps the most positive change Apple ever made. By making USB the main peripheral port on the iMac in 1998, Apple started leaning the rest of the tech world away from serial, parallel, and PS/2 ports and toward a fast, durable, hot-pluggable, almost do-all that has proven itself time and again for almost 15 years.
Apple's recent trend of faster and faster obsolescence is the most negative change they've implemented. We can look back at System 7, which will run on Macs from the late 80s to the late 90s, many of them running the last version (7.6), and yet Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard only ran on Macs less than three years older than itself. In this respect, OS X 10.4 Tiger proves itself almost a new System 7, officially supporting 5-year-old hardware when it was introduced and unofficially supporting upgraded pre-G3 Macs. OS X 10.7 Lion, on the other hand, is leaving Core Solo and Core Duo Macs high and dry.
One final note: I'm not a very vocal supporter of Mac OS backwards-compatibility. While I welcome any effort Apple has taken to provide backwards compatibility, I have come to accept that Apple will continue its strategy of rapid replacement. With that in mind, I view GNU/Linux as the best alternative to Mac OS X on older Macs, as Linux distributions continue to receive new updates to (or provide alternatives for) software such as Firefox, regardless of system architecture. I applaud the Linux community at large for keeping PowerPC alive and well in the tech world, and I plan to begin contributing to their efforts as soon as learning permits.
Brian Gray (Fruitful Editing): I've been a Mac user since 2002. When I purchased my first "new" Mac (a refurbished G5 iMac) at the end of 2005, I knew the Intel change was coming. I also knew the value of the machine I was purchasing and trusted Apple to keep the software I needed reasonably supported. It still runs Tiger and is processing some video for me right now - just as well as the day it arrived on my doorstep.
One of my biggest frustrations is with the constant updates to iTunes. A 10-year-old PC with Windows XP can run the latest version of iTunes, but no Mac running Tiger can. Why? It seems to make sense that Apple would want to keep as many users as possible capable of making purchases.
Dan Bashur (Apple, Tech, and Gaming): As a Mac veteran of over 20 years, there have been too many changes to possibly imagine, and as much as drastic change annoys longtime Mac users like myself, many great decisions have been made by Apple to improve the hardware, OS, and software on the Mac.
On the other hand, there have definitely been some less than desirable features added, while support for applications and hardware was dropped in various changes to the Mac and the operating system, fueling intense frustration. To compare and contrast these beneficial and frustrating decisions by Apple, I decided to narrow things down to my top five Apple changes that have benefited me, and my top 5 frustrations.
Top 5 Apple changes that have benefited me:
- Mac OS X - It's amazing how easily OS 9 is forgotten when so many variations of Mac OS X install on machines dating back to some of the earliest Power Macs (with G3 or G4 upgrades). Earlier versions of Mac OS X had very forgiving system requirements, and you can usually get around those requirements with XPostFacto on machines just under the bar Apple sets. There are even workarounds to Leopard installs on G4s under the 867 MHz bar Apple set, keeping Macs up to date longer than Apple even planned. The advent of Mac OS X unleashed several features that we have come to love and adore - and made each release something to get excited about.
- FireWire - Although FireWire never gained enough steam to become as widely accepted as USB, it had so many more advantages. The most notable (on a Mac) was FireWire Target Disk Mode. It made troubleshooting a Mac and migrating data seamlessly between machines easy. FireWire also allowed for much faster external drive access and even made it possible to boot from an external drive. I couldn't imagine getting by without FireWire.
- The SuperDrive - Apple was the first to come out with a DVD writer, and with a multitude of authoring and editing software available on the Mac ranging from iMovie and iDVD to Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro, any average to advanced user could suddenly become a budding Hollywood DVD producer. All that you needed was a Mac equipped with FireWire and a SuperDrive, along with a Digital Video capable camcorder with a 4-pin FireWire connection (Sony was the best to adopt this and dubbed its version iLink).
- Design - Apple's design boom that began in the late 90s (and is arguably still going strong today) replaced boring beige boxes and all black laptops with fruity colors and intriguing new form factors, such as the G4 Cube, Mac mini, and MacBook Air, to name a few. This movement began what has helped solidify Apple's position in today's Mac World.
- Universal Binary - Although Apple decided to move to Intel processors in 2005 and unveiled the first wave of Intel Macs in early 2006, Apple didn't forget its PowerPC fans (at least most of them) by allowing OS X 10.5 Leopard to be installed on G4s over 867 MHz, rather than eliminating PowerPC support altogether. Not only was this a great intermediary step between 10.4 Tiger and 10.6 Snow Leopard, it also gave birth to other Universal Binary software. This was great if you owned a PowerPC Mac and decided to move to an Intel Mac. The software was assured to install properly on both systems.
Now for my top 5 Apple frustrations:
- Lion - You've all heard how I have felt about Lion. My four-part series that gives Lion fair consideration, OS X Lion and the Post-PC Era: Yay or No Way clearly sets the tone. My opinions have not changed. Lion so far hasn't just changed the way the Mac works, but also how it does not work. Numerous bugs have been reported, including security vulnerabilities. Amazing how you can ruin a great thing by trying to transform it into a different product. I'm not going to rant any further. since this is my biggest frustration with Apple of all time, so I rest my case.
- Untimely Product Releases - Apple is notorious for releasing a new model with specifications far beyond the previous model within months of the previous model's release. I purchased a new 600 MHz Graphite iMac G3 (Summer 2001) for $1,299, only to find four months later I could have had a flat panel iMac G4 with SuperDrive for the same price. To add insult to injury, Apple continued to sell the iMac G3 I bought for a while longer at a price of $999. My sister-in-law experienced the same fate after she purchased a 13" Core 2 Duo Mid 2010 MacBook Pro last December, only to have Apple release the Core i5 model, which is roughly twice as fast and is equipped with Thunderbolt, a month later. Apple has certainly made buying new a frustrating experience, but with all technology it's the nature of the beast. It's just a lot harder pill to swallow when you're spending upwards of $1,000.
- No Blu-ray - Apple was one of the fist members of the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA, formerly Blu-ray Disc Consortium) and supported the technology. After being an initial supporter, why has Apple doubled back and why has Steve Jobs called Blu-ray a "bag of hurt", among many other outspoken negative emotions towards the technology? Blu-ray is the HD optical disc standard, so why Apple hasn't made 15.4" MacBook Pros with 1920 x 1080 screen resolutions (similar to Sony's Vaio VGN-FW line) still baffles me. I understand Steve's philosophy with protecting his investment in the iTunes Store for digital HD content, but consumers still want physical media, and Blu-ray provides physical media with much greater quality and clarity than DVD. The SuperDrive had its time, and rather than eliminate the optical drive altogether (which seems to be the direction Apple wants to take), Apple should have given Blu-ray a chance.
- Eliminating User-Serviceable Parts - Little by little, Apple is taking away our ability to upgrade our Macs. Why couldn't every portable be more like the Pismo PowerBook? Instead, we lost removable batteries with the unibody and have to pay highway robbery to have them replaced when they eventually go. The MacBook Air has the RAM soldered to the board and can't be upgraded by the user after it's ordered. Processors on the Mac mini that were once removable are now soldered on. Has a machine that costs upwards of $1,000 become fixed in a state of unchanging operating capability intentionally to become "disposable"?
- The Clone Era - Before Steve's return to Apple in 1997, there was a strong period of PowerPC Mac clones that came to be. This was an attempt to increase the scope of Mac OS and make Apple more like Microsoft through licensing its operating system. With the tiny share of the market Apple had at the time, this wasn't a terrible idea on paper, but it led to sub-standard hardware (although many owners stand by their clones, especially owners of Daystar Genesis machines). When Steve Jobs ended this failed program, it only meant good things for Apple. As a huge fan of Apple, it was definitely a frustration to see Apple going against the very philosophy that made them great in the first place and ushered in a new era of "Think Different".
That's my 2 cents...
Adam Rosen (Adam's Apple): As noted by others in the group, I think the platform changes Apple has made with the launch of Mac OS X have provided the most benefits. Using standard file naming extensions, a Unix-based OS, the switch to Intel processors, and all the while endeavoring to make those changes as transparent to existing users as possible. This has allowed the continued evolution and migration of the platform. In the past decade, the Mac is more stable, capable, and cross-platform compatible than ever before.
The most frustrating changes occur not because Apple drops old technologies and formats in new products, but in how they do so: the day a new product goes on sale, the old one is no longer available. Didn't upgrade to Leopard before Snow Leopard came out? Sorry, Leopard is no longer for sale. Need to run the old Final Cut Pro for a bit longer before migrating to iMovie Pro (err, I mean Final Cut Pro X)? Sorry, you can't buy that any longer. iOS 4 sucks on your iPhone 3Gs? Sorry, no way to downgrade.
We've learned to live with Apple Giveth, and Apple Taketh Away. But it really wouldn't hurt to provide some overlap between products - the real world doesn't always move at the speed of Apple. Meanwhile, I'll fight to the death to keep FireWire Target Disk Mode around as long as possible!
Charles Moore (several columns): Hey, if anyone wants to call me a Luddite because I still have two 11-year-old Apple laptops in daily service for production work, have at it. I use the G4-upgraded Pismo PowerBooks because they do what I require of them quite well, are astonishingly reliable (especially considering their advanced age), and subjectively because I like the tactile feel of the Pismo as a work tool better than any other computer I've ever used.
I spend four hours or so on one or the other or both Pismos daily - sometimes more - and I don't get tired of them. Sure, I wouldn't mind more speed, especially graphics support, but running OS X 10.4.11 Tiger they're actually decently lively.
However, I'm a realist. I know that I'll be able to play this string out for only so long, and I'm serene, although a bit sad about that. It's not sentimentality. They're just a great production tool.
Last winter, I was beginning to think the string had run out - frustrated by lack of support by any state-of-the-art browser. Thankfully, the Pismos have a new lease on life thanks to the developers of TenFourFox, a port of open source Firefox 5 that supports PowerPC Macs running Mac OS X 10.4.11 and 10.5, and it works really well on my ancient PowerBooks, especially recent builds - decently fast and stable, and with most of the Firefox 5 feature set intact. Incidentally, it also is dynamic proof that there was no technical impediment to Mozilla.org continuing support for PPC Macs.
However, I have no aversion to using new technologies, provided they're a bona fide improvement, rather than just change for change's sake or focused on serving a set of priorities that doesn't fit my needs. For example, I had hoped that the iPad 2 I bought two months ago would serve satisfactorily as a partial substitute for the old Pismos for production tasks. Alas, it's been a big disappointment in that regard - essentially useless as a production platform in the context of my workflow and efficiency requirements, although it's reasonably good at a limited range of other functions. But compared with even the ancient Pismos, let alone my Core 2 Duo MacBook or newer Mac laptops, the iPad is lame and clunky at performing the tasks that are mission-critical for me.
That's not Luddism - it's realism. If Apple is even able to make the iPad a tolerably efficient performer for text editing and manipulation, I/O connectivity, and adds real multitasking and file system support to iOS, I'll happily revisit it, but for now, I'm kinda wishing I'd applied the cash I spent on the iPad to purchasing a MacBook Air, which is new technology I can enthusiastically embrace.
In the meantime, I'll continue happily using my old Pismos for a while yet, because they're still the best tool I have at hand for the work I do with them.
Steve Watkins (The Practical Mac): Two wholly positive changes jump to mind, as they both impact me (for the better) daily.
- The move to OS X. Though you don't see it mentioned much anymore, at the time of its release, "the power of Unix" was heralded as a prominent feature of OS X. Preemptive multitasking was a huge improvement over System 9, and the rock-solid underpinnings of BSD Unix mean I go for weeks at a time without rebooting. This is a huge boon for productivity - and something neither the Classic Mac OS nor Windows (at least to date) could ever approach.
- The iPhone. Like its Mac counterparts, it does what Steve Jobs hoped it would do: "It just works." I would be lost without the ability to check email, browse the Web, and text on the go (not to mention the occasional game), and four years later, no other smartphone comes close to matching the iPhone's functionality or ease of use.
- Planned unnecessary obsolescence, and at what seems like an accelerated pace of late. There is no technical reason to ditch Rosetta, yet Apple does so anyway. PowerPC processors were left behind too early. Just a couple of examples that come to mind - if I thought, I'm sure I could come up with more.
- Increasing move toward closed systems. Someone else already explored this topic, so I will sum up by saying I am getting irritated with Apple more every time they release a product virtually void of user-serviceable parts.
Dan Knight (Mac Musings): It's hard to imagine now, but the the first three years of its existence, the Mac was a closed box. The first two models had no expansion slots, no hard drive connector, and no memory upgrades, although there were some aftermarket options. The Mac Plus added upgradable memory and the SCSI hard drive connector but remained a closed box. today's closed boxes are the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, and MacBook Air.
The thoroughly expandable Mac II was a paradigm buster, offering six expansion slots, room for two floppy drives and two 3.5" (or one 5.25") hard drives, and memory expansion from a base of 1 MB to 128 MB, although it would be some years before anyone could actually buy that much memory. You could have more than one video card, add a fast network card, and had full color support for the first time on a Mac. Today's Mac Pro continues that legacy.
The next big change came with System 7, when multitasking became the default behavior of the Mac OS. Before that, you either ran one app at a time and quit it to run another, or you used a task switcher like MultiFinder. Cooperative multitasking wasn't perfect, but it did mean existing apps didn't have to be rewritten. If one task demanded all your CPU resources, everything else had to wait, and your programs used a fixed amount of system memory - all issues that Apple left behind with Mac OS X.
Then Apple began to more away from SCSI drives, NuBus expansion slots, and its own video connector. Beginning with the Quadra 630 and PowerBook 150 in 1994, Apple started to transition to IDE drives, although SCSI remained the standard for Power Macs until the Beige G3 in 1997. In 1995, Apple abandoned NuBus expansion cards for PCI, the standard in the PC world. And Apple's unique 15-pin video connector gave way to VGA with the Blue & White Power Mac G3 in 1999, bringing yet another industry standard to Mac users.
With the introduction of the iMac in 1998, Apple abandoned SCSI, its ADB mouse and keyboard port, its RS-422 serial/network ports, and the built-in floppy in favor of USB. By doing this, Apple created a market for USB peripherals that had not yet developed even though many PCs already had built-in USB ports that nobody really used yet. It's hard to remember that there was a time before USB flash drives!
It took Apple several years to get OS X out the door and to the point where it became really useful, which I would date to the introduction of OS X 10.2 Jaguar in August 2002. One of Apple's most brilliant moves was adding Classic Mode to its new OS, as this allowed Mac users to continue using their older Mac software until suitable OS X replacements became available - much as PowerPC Macs had supported 680x0 apps and Intel Macs continued to support PowerPC apps until the release of OS X 10.7 Lion. (Classic Mode remained through OS X 10.4 Tiger for PowerPC Macs; it has never been available on Intel Macs.)
With the switch to Intel CPUs in 2006, Apple adopted the fifth CPU architecture in its history - following the 6502 from the Apple II and III, the 680x0 from Lisa and Macintosh, the PowerPC, and the ARM chip in its Newton PDA, and architecture Apple returned to with the iPhone in 2007.
Apple has made a lot of changes for the good, even though old timers often moaned about what got left behind in the process. But Apple also made some changes we didn't like, even if we later became used to them.
- Preemptive multitasking made System 7 slower than System 6. It also demanded more system resources, making 2 MB of memory a practical minimum.
- IDE hard drives required more CPU resources than SCSI drives, which meant less processing power available to your apps during hard drive access. As the IDE specification matured and CPUs became more powerful, this became less of an issue. (The same issue impacts USB vs. FireWire.)
- Apple has come up with some doozies in the area of monitors. The AppleVision 1710 requires an ADB connection in addition to its video cable. Then came the HDI-45 connector on the AudioVision 14 Display, which could only be directly connected to first-generation Power Macs. HDI-45 included video, sound, microphone input, and ADB in one big connection. And then came the Apple Display Connector, which combined DVI, USB, and monitor power. You need an expensive adapter to use ADC monitors with modern Macs.
- Mac OS X was a slow, bloated mess at first, and version 10.0 was barely useful. But 10.2 was pretty mature, 10.3 was very nice, and 10.4 set the high water mark for features, efficiency, and backward compatibility (it was the last version with Classic Mode and the last Mac OS to support G3 CPUs.)
Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard left Classic Mode behind, so quite a few of us are still running Tiger on our G3 and G4 Macs. OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard left PowerPC Macs behind, and quite a few of us are still using Leopard on our G4 and G5 Macs. And now OS X 10.7 Lion leaves PowerPC software behind by eliminating Rosetta.
When Apple abandoned the floppy drive, third-party USB floppies let us access our old 3.5" diskettes - at least the high density ones. There were ADB-to-USB adapters for those who loved their old ADB keyboards, trackballs, and tablets. Mac-to-VGA and VGA-to-Mac adapters let us mix and match Macs and monitors. And right up until Apple launched Leopard in late 2007, we could still run a lot of ancient 680x0 Mac apps thanks to Classic Mode.
I'd have to peg 2007 as the year Apple changed its course. Until then, the level of backward compatibility was astounding. Since then, the focus has been on building for the future and leaving the past behind - no Classic Mode for Intel Macs or OS X 10.5, no PowerPC support for OS X 10.6, and no support for the first generation of Intel Macs or PowerPC software with OS X 10.7.
Looking forward, I have to say that Thunderbolt is the most significant new feature Apple has added in years, and the Apple Thunderbolt Display exemplifies that future. One cable between your 2001 Mac and the monitor gives you USB, FireWire, and ethernet ports on the display - even if your Mac (specifically the MacBook Air) doesn't have FireWire and ethernet ports.
Multitouch trackpads, the Magic Mouse, and the Magic Trackpad bring the touch technology developed for the iPhone to Mac users, as do some third-party drivers for older PowerBook and iBook trackpads. Touch has significantly changed the way we interact with our smartphones, tablets, and computers, although I don't ever see mice and trackballs disappearing - sometimes you need pixel-level control of the cursor. But the day is coming when desktop Macs will ship with trackpads instead of mice, which will be optional accessories, just the opposite of today when the mouse is standard and the trackpad an option.
For the most part, Apple has made changes for the better. Old timers wed to Classic apps, PowerPC software, SCSI drives, or whatever will have to continue using what works for them. Apple has left us behind, but our old Macs are no less productive because of it. Those who want all the modern bells and whistles have to pay the price for newer hardware and software.
Or you can have the best of both worlds, as several LEM staffers do, by using newer Macs alongside older ones - me with my Intel Mac min running Snow Leopard and G4 Power Macs running Tiger and Leopard, Charles Moore with his workhorse Pismos, several others using G4 notebooks, and quite a number living in the iOS world with our iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads. As long as everything can work together - whether over WiFi or via Dropbox - we don't have to choose up-to-date vs. dated. We can have our modern Macs and low-end Macs too.
Recent Low End Mac Round Tables
- 2004: The First G5 iMacs, 2012.08.31. It was a pleasant surprise when Apple redesigned the iMac around the fast, efficient, hot running G5 CPU.
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- OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard at 3: The Best Classic Version of OS X?, 2012.08.28. Just three years ago, OS X left PowerPC Macs behind but still ran PowerPC software. A year later, OS X got iOSiffied, making OS X 10.6 a last, best option for many.
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