Mac Musings

Beige G3 Abandoned by Panther? Is It Really Inevitable?

Daniel Knight - 2003.06.30

A lot of longtime Power Mac users were disappointed when we learned that Mac OS X wouldn't support every Power Mac ever made, something many of us had taken as a given when Apple's OS roadmap was announced in the System 7.x era.

That was 1994, and the Next Great Mac OS (then known as Copland) was expected within a year or two. The company I worked for bought a lot of Power Mac 6100s because of this, even though LC IIIs or Quadra 605s would have done the job for a lot less money. We were planning ahead.

In 1997, the Mac OS finally moved to the 8.0 mark, Apple threw in the towel on Copland, and Steve Jobs returned with the acquisition of NeXT. As I wrote in 1998, "Rhapsody was going to be the next Mac OS, a Unix variant based on the Mach microkernel. Efficient. Powerful. Robust. And it would run on any Power Mac with a PCI bus."

Well, sorta. Mac OS X Server shipped in March 1999, and it did run on PCI Power Macs, but this was a far cry from what OS X was destined to become. (I have a copy of OS X Server 1.0 somewhere. Someday I'll have to install it on one of my old SuperMac clones....)

The OS X Public Beta shipped on September 13, 2000. It was a bit less like the NeXT OS and a bit more like the Mac OS - and each subsequent revision to OS X has become more Mac-like. From OS X 10.0 through Jaguar, the official system requirements have remained the same, but it seems that may change with 10.3.

Left Behind

Apple has a wonderful track record of supporting older hardware. The 1986 Mac Plus can run System 7.5.5 from 1996. The 1989 Macintosh IIci could run Mac OS 7.6.1 from 1997. And the first Quadras, the 700 and 900 from 1991, could run Mac OS 8.1, which was introduced in 1998.

Every Power Mac - even the first generation models from 1994 - can run Mac OS 9.1, and many of them support OS 9.2 as well. Some Macs have been supported by the OS up to eight years after the hardware was introduced.

OS X changed all that. The minimum requirement for OS X 10.0 was a Mac built around a G3 or G4 processor, with the exception of the original PowerBook G3. The oldest Mac supported by the 2001 release of OS X was the November 1997 beige Power Mac G3. (Yes, lots of older PCI Power Macs and clones can run OS X thanks to XPostFacto, but we're only dealing with Apple supported systems here.)

That computer was fully supported through the 2002 release of Jaguar (10.2) and the various OS updates release into 2003.

Bye-Bye Beige?

According to Accelerate Your Mac!, a reader reports that the list of hardware officially supported by the preview version of Panther (OS X 10.3) doesn't include the beige G3. Although this may change with the release version of 10.3, but the beige already lacks DVD support and has a video subsystem that's challenged by Aqua, to say the least.

However, the same reader reports that the blue & white G3 (1/99) is listed as supported hardware. This model has Rage 128 video, which is quite a step up from the Rage II+ or Rage Pro video in the beige G3, although it isn't up to handling Quartz Extreme.

I'd be disappointed to see support for the beige G3 dropped at this point. The computer was introduced less than six years ago, and it works adequately with Jaguar. It's no speed demon, but it's definitely usable. If Panther is supposed to be an even more efficient OS, it should be able to hold its own on the beige G3.

Of course, that makes some assumptions. Some older G3 models only have 2 MB or 4 MB of video memory. If Panther requires more than that, the WallStreet PowerBooks are going to be unsupported - and, unlike the beige G3, there's no easy way to add a new video card to a PowerBook. And that would also rule out early iMacs (the first iMacs shipped with just 2 MB of VRAM, but that can be upgraded).

We're looking at similar video chips in the beige G3, PowerBook G3 Series, and early iMacs. If video is the reason the beige G3 isn't officially supported by Panther (and that's just conjecture), all three of these models are endangered.

Moving Forward

At some point it's going to happen. Apple is going to abandon support for these models with first generation NewWorld ROMs. They have severely limited video performance, which is a big deal in OS X. Except for the iMac, they include ADB, Mac serial, and SCSI ports, all of which disappeared as Apple moved forward.

And they have that infuriating problem with large hard drives. Drives larger than 8 GB must be partitioned, the first partition must be no larger than 8 GB, and OS X can only boot from that partition.

As Apple moves ahead, they will undoubtedly stop officially supporting this early hardware, just as they don't officially support OS X on pre-G3 hardware. That doesn't mean Apple's going to remove the code that supports ADB mice and keyboards; it does mean that Apple will have no obligation to troubleshoot problems with ADB, serial, and SCSI devices on unsupported hardware.

Now or Later?

I have a vested interest here. We have a beige G3. We have tray-loading iMacs with that 8 GB partition issue. One of my sons has a WallStreet. I'd hate to see them abandoned by Apple as we're slowly adopting OS X here.

On the other hand, we're dealing with 5-6 year old models here that do have some serious compromises under OS X. They're pretty speedy machines under OS 9, but they are on the sluggish side with Jaguar.

Still, the Low End Mac philosophy is getting the most out of what you've got, knowing when and what to upgrade, and knowing when it's time to move on to newer (not necessarily new) hardware. There's still life in these 233 MHz and faster G3 machines, and it would be a shame to see Apple abandon support for them quite yet.

Additionally, Apple has the potential to sell Panther to owners of these machines as long as they are supported. Once they become unsupported, beige G3 owners are far less likely to upgrade to 10.3, even if Ryan Rempel can make it work. (Three cheers for XPostFacto letting us decide whether our vintage Power Macs should have OS X or not!)

A Modest Suggestion

Looking at the whole situation, Apple could choose a middle path. Instead of only providing an installer for supported hardware, Apple could include an option to install Panther on unsupported hardware. This would come with a boilerplate disclaimer that you have to agree to, just as you have to agree to certain terms and conditions to do a supported installation.

Apple could work with Ryan Rempel and others in the Mac community to tweak the Panther installer and put a machine specific ReadMe file on the desktop when an unsupported installation is accomplished. This document would detail the limitations of the older hardware, suggest ways in which the hardware could be improved (e.g., a better video card, more RAM, etc.), and then point to a page on the Web offering further information about Panther on that computer.

It would also have to do a preflight check of the system to make sure there's enough RAM, a supported video card (especially in Macs with PCI video cards), and that the drive is properly partitioned, should that be necessary.

This would benefit those of us with older hardware, since we wouldn't have to look for a third-party installer to put OS X on our Macs and clones. This would especially benefit those Mac users with older hardware who aren't regulars on the Mac Web and who have probably never even heard of XPostFacto.

This would benefit Apple by making it easier for millions of older Macs to move up to Panther. It would allow Apple to pursue a portion of the market they would have to ignore by not offering a mechanism for unsupported installs.

Nobody gets hurt in this scenario. People with beige G3s are not Apple's target for new G5s or blowout G4s. We're Mac users on budgets who might be able to justify $129 for Panther but generally can't justify $1,299 for a new computer.

This increases the market for OS X software, for hardware upgrades, and for future OS updates. It won't grow Apple's market share, but it will grow OS X market share and put money in Apple's pockets.

It looks like a win-win situation to me.