Mac Musings

Firefox 4 Drops Tiger Support: So What?

Daniel Knight - 2010.02.09 -

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In May 2010, the Mozilla team decided that the next version of Firefox would be named 4.0, not 3.7. This article has been updated accordingly. dk

The handwriting in on the wall for PowerPC Macs and for Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. With the release of Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" in August 2009, Apple moved OS X away from PowerPC hardware. The last version that PowerPC Macs will ever be able to run is OS X 10.5 Leopard, which replaced Tiger in October 2007.

And now it appears that one of the most important third-party apps for Mac users is dropping Tiger support, if it hasn't already.

Tiger's Place in Mac History

Tiger has a venerable place in Mac OS history. Released in April 2005, it was the current version of OS X for two-and-a-half years. It was the last version of OS X to support G3 Macs and the first to support Intel-based Macs when Apple introduced them in 2006.

Tiger introduced Spotlight searches, iChat AV with multiuser voice and visual chat, an RSS reader built into Safari, "smart" mailboxes in Mail, Dashboard and its widgets, Automator, and the first version of QuickTime to support the H.264 video standard.

Tiger was the last version of OS X to support Classic Mode, which allows use of software written for Mac OS versions through 9.2.2. This is a big reason many of us who have hardware capable of running OS X 10.5 still use 10.4 - we need to use one or more Classic apps that haven't really been in OS X (or such replacements cost too much or are not as satisfactory).

I am one of those users. I am writing this column using Claris Home Page 3.0, a program last updated in 1997. It's not perfect, it's a bit outdated, and it's still the best WYSIWYG tool I've found for writing and editing articles for publication on the Web. It also has a very competent upload manager.

Left Behind by Leopard

Apple did a major overhaul with OS X 10.5. Leopard was the first version of OS X certified as Unix, and it had much higher hardware requirements than Tiger. All Macs with G3 processors were left behind, and most Macs with G4 CPUs - including most G3 Macs with G4 upgrades - could run Leopard, although it required a hack to get Leopard installed on G4 Macs running below 867 MHz.

Leopard is much more demanding of the graphics processor (GPU), and some of its features demand a lot more horsepower. What Mac users gained was a new interface, parental controls, Photo Booth with real time image filters, and Time Machine backup.

For faster G3 Macs without a G4 upgrade option, Tiger was the end of the line. (Slower G3 Macs were often better served with OS X 10.3 Panther, which had a smaller memory footprint and didn't have the added overhead of Spotlight and Dashboard.) For slower G4 Macs, Tiger can be a better choice, as Leopard is much more demanding of memory, CPU, and GPU resources. And it supports Classic Mode.

A lot of Mac users stuck with Tiger either by choice or necessity. Today, 27 months after Leopard was introduced, about 15% of Mac users continue to use Tiger.

The Future of Tiger

OS X 10.4 is two generations behind, and Apple is no longer releasing updates for it. Over the past two years, more and more applications require OS X 10.5 or later, increasingly marginalizing Tiger users. That means no Safari 5, no Mail 3, iCal 3, etc. The free Apple software that Tiger users have available today are that last revisions Tiger will support.

That applies increasingly to third-party software as well. Google's Chrome browser will never run on Tiger (or PowerPC Macs, for that matter). And now it appears that Firefox 4 won't either.

The question remains, Is this a big deal? Macs running Tiger will continue to do everything they did when they were first purchased, everything they did when Tiger was first installed on them, and everything they can do today. Firefox 3.6 is a very competent browser, and while I'm disappointed that I can't try the nightly builds in Tiger, I don't need the latest version to be productive (or entertained).

At some point, developers have to make the choice to eliminate support for older versions of operating systems. You wouldn't expect to run Internet Explorer 8 on Windows 95 or Firefox 3 on the Classic Mac OS.* If you're running older hardware and older operating systems, you have to understand that some new software will never work with it.

On the plus side, Opera 10 still supports Tiger - and even Panther. No official word from Opera on what system requirements Opera 11 will have, but we're hopeful.

Tiger Today and Tomorrow

As with System 6, System 7.5, Mac OS 8.1, Mac OS 9.2.2, OS X 10.2.8, OS X 10.3.9, Windows 98, Windows XP, and older versions of Linux, old computers with old operating systems will remain useful. In general, thanks to OS and software updates, they have already become more capable than when they were first purchased, and they will never lose the capabilities they have today.

Although we're disappointed when Apple stops providing security updates for Tiger and when Firefox drops OS X 10.4 support for the next version, these older Macs will remain powerful, capable, useful systems for years to come. They may not be able to run the most current browsers and other apps at some point, but they won't lose their abilities.

Tiger Will Be Left Behind

Tiger itself won't really be left behind. What's going to happen more and more is that online content will require browser features or versions of Flash that Tiger users don't have. As long as browsers continue being updated and Flash Player doesn't leave Tiger behind, we'll continue to have full access to the Internet. But over time, new standards and protocols and features will come along that won't be supported by any apps or plugins compatible with Tiger. That's how we'll be left behind.

Your options then:

The handwriting is on the wall, but there's no set date when Tiger will truly become obsolete. The OS itself will continue to function, and as long as your computer doesn't fail, it will remain useful. The big issue is compatibility with the rest of the world: Can you access all of the Web? Can you use the latest Word and Excel files? When will streaming video be more than your hardware can handle?

That's your call. We expect to keep using Tiger for years to come.

* The closest Mac OS 9.x users can come is Classilla, a fork from Mozilla 1.3.1 specifically for the Classic Mac OS. The goal of the project is to code newer Mozilla features for the Classic Mac OS and add them, eventually making Classilla the best and most up-to-date browser for Classic Mac users.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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