Retro-Computing, Macintosh Style

Let’s embark on a memory lane stroll. To set the mood, perhaps first catch the online video of Steve Jobs’ January 1984 talk/demo at a meeting of the Boston Computer Society. A simple search will find many sources of this 1.5 hour marketing address.

We’re not going to talk early Macintosh here though. Although I regret now parting with my SE/30 long ago, I am not sure I could find a real use for it anymore. I don’t really want to fund a museum. Rather, I will discuss the last half of the Macintosh era, beginning around say late 1999, through the lens of the machines connected to my current home LAN and old software I still find useful or entertaining.

For added background before plunging into detail, follow the link and reflect on Apple’s product support policies and their support performance over this period.

Apple Encourages Us To Keep Up

It is expensive to live on the edge of the future, both in monetary terms and as measured in other less direct costs. One of these indirect costs across all industry is environmental impact of new material products and their packaging, which must eventually become discards.

I am conflicted. As an Apple shareholder, I want Apple to sell a lot of its always fresh new stuff. Yet as a conservationist, I encourage users to hang on to the old for as long as practicable. Apple has decided to help me out of this conundrum by supporting buy-back and reuse of older mobile devices. Who can argue with win-win? Now if they would only consider a similar program for their other hardware products.

Apple has been a solid partner in recent times in migrating its user base into the future. For every new computer purchase, the Apple user is able to automatically have all old data migrated to the new computer. Therefore, for most of the Apple customer base, making a clean break with computing past is a painless, no-loss path forward.

Strategies For Keeping Up

There will be no suggestion here that users should live in the past. Nostalgia is usually a fleeting fancy. My own strategy, based in value and stability, is to remain a generation behind the bleeding edge with my primary computer and OS version. This allows me to buy used hardware at considerable savings. It further helps avoid early teething problems. I learned this strategy in buying cars, and it seems to translate faithfully to computers as well.

Such a strategy also  keeps me clear of silent feature removal tactics sometimes employed by Apple. This has been particularly an issue for me with iTunes, victim of old code base and muddled strategy for incorporating streaming music into its model. Remaining at least a version behind the latest and often ungreatest iTunes is likely to relieve potential user distress.

Upgrading had been a bi-annual affair, the point at which one could obtain noticeably more performance/productivity for a few dollars more. One asked how long we could realize such an increasing performance trajectory? Also, have we reached a point of diminishing returns?

About five years ago, the answer to the latter question became yes for 95% of computer users, which rendered the former question irrelevant. General purpose computers are now fast enough that with rare exception of extreme power users in gaming, video editing and the like, users will not perceive enhanced performance/productivity from a newer model. Further in the adequacy direction, Macintosh reliability has become excellent. No more crashes or mysterious glitches to sort out.

Apple was not always good at product continuity, putting forth many failed proprietary technologies that stranded customers in product dead-ends. But since Apple matured and began widely adopting industry standards such as USB and Unix, they have enabled continuity together with plug and play versatility. Forced themselves to manage fundamental midstream technology changes in hardware architecture and operating system kernel, Apple has developed perspective, skills, and emulation tools/APIs (e.g. Classic, Carbon, Rosetta) that ensure product continuity and trouble-free user migration.

My last keeping-up event was six years ago, migrating from a Power Mac G5 DP 2.0 to my current desktop Mac, a 27″ Core i5 iMac, bought used when six months old. I then sold the Power Mac with its 22″ Cinema display, so that the direct upgrade cost was less than $1K net. Hopefully the PowerMac with a high-end sound card is still getting good use.

Some Still Need A Foot In Their Past

Even while keeping up, there are practical as well as emotional reasons for users to maintain contact with technology past. Not everything newer is better. Sometimes, a good thing from the past, for example software oriented to old hardware, does not have enough market potential to justify bringing it along into the updated future. For such functionality, old becomes the only game in town.

Sometimes producers (usual suspects come to mind) work overtime to structure their products as consumer money sinks, creating reciprocal upgrade resistance on the part of consumers. For value-conscious consumers who reject the ‘it’s only money’ philosophy, old is good enough most of the time.

Beware, retro-computing is not for the faint-hearted and technology-challenged individual. One must get one’s hands dirty and solve perplexing incompatibility problems to make headway. It is a more pleasant hobby if one has some strong instincts for tinkering and a few rudimentary skills to keep frustration levels from rising. Every year that passes, more of the available, relevant, helpful information disappears from the online infobase.

My Personal Retro Motivation

I ran Snow Leopard on the new iMac until Mavericks became available. At that zero price point, I was persuaded to rejoin the future. But that meant some of my investment might need to be left behind, namely those apps that only run on PowerPC (PPC) hardware. This was not a problem while using Snow Leopard, because Apple kindly left Rosetta, its translation/emulation layer for PPC code support, in place through OS X 10.6.

Most users will have no current need for PPC-based software. My few PPC oldies include programs that I resist upgrading since they are fine for me as-is: CS2 (the Adobe revenue stream from me ended a while ago) and Practica Musica (ear training app). Another class of PPC program I depend on is software for which no later version will ever exist: SoundDiver (editor and librarian for hardware sound synthesizers), and the control panel for my Emagic MIDI interface hardware. I could buy new hardware and software at considerable expense and learning curve, but it would not be as good as my current oldies.

Further motivation arises in connection with my sizable suite of pre-OSX applications and games that I still like to revisit for fun and nostalgia. I do not use these applications enough to justify the considerable expense to update them to current status. So I decided to return to the past and visit them in their OS 9 environment.

My interest in retro was further sparked by a desire to read/copy some old Apple-formatted floppies. A check of Craigslist found a local 300 mHz Beige G3 Power Mac (1998) with Princeton Graphics EO72 17″ CRT and full size ADB keyboard, all for $20. This is the true bridge machine to Apple’s distant past, so I glommed it, intending it as an OS 9 VNC server.

I experience sights I haven’t seen in two decades: Hypercard, Mathematica, Finale (music notation), Alchemy (sound editor), Textbridge OCR, Filemaker Pro, Pagemaker, ClarisWorks, FreeHand, and the early Macintosh product Filevision (visual database from company I worked for).

The astronomy program VoyagerII paints a beautiful sky once again. It’s a joy again to play computer Go, Chess, and Bridge using my old classic programs. How long has it been since we last played Bombs or Tetris? I am not really a gaming person in the modern sense, but I still enjoy the simple pleasures.

Planning a Big Step Backward

Realizing a need for an overall retro strategy, a list of options was generated.

One can run a virtual machine (VM) within one’s main computer. Within the VM, one can run an obsolete operating system and any included emulations of even older hardware. For example, Virtual Box, running on Intel/ElCapitan, can support Snow Leopard Server, which runs the Rosetta emulator, which runs applications written only for the pre-Intel PPC architecture.

Similarly, OS X Tiger can run the Classic environment for emulation of OS 9.2.2. Even more convenient, OS X El Capitan can run ChubbyBunny, a packaged version of the SheepShaver emulator, for plug and play emulation of OS 9.0.4 (appears to be well-implemented; very easy to use).

In terms of OS9 compatibility, all well-preserved applications will run on old hardware that boots OS9, most will run under Classic 9.2.2 in Tiger, and most of those will still run in 9.0.4 within ChubbyBunny/SheepShaver under El Capitan. It’s amazing to watch OS9 boot within ChubbyBunny (on my slowish iMac, less than 3 sec from appearance of ‘Starting Up’).

When maintaining an obsolete computer that runs the old software, there are two further choices: run the external computer headless and control it via screen sharing (VNC), or provide it with a monitor, creating a separate workstation. A variant of the second choice is to utilize a PPC PowerBook. Which approach works best depends on the applications themselves, the host platform capabilities, and the network infrastructure.

Applications relying on fast GUI processing may work best on a native monitor. Since VNC is a silent interface, any OS9 software relying on sound I/O will need to be run native on a bootable OS9 platform. VNC hosted on a powerful platform is satisfactory over fast ethernet for most apps. VNC support is built into later versions of OS X. The free application OS9vnc allows OS 9 to serve its screens to an OS X client via VNC.

Using my main (newest) computer to run all current and retro apps is my strong preference. I have provided adequate hardware performance across my LAN to realize this goal. The Virtual Box (VBox) from Sun-Oracle (Snorcle) is the modern, generic VM of choice (it’s free). Fire it up and install Snow Leopard Server (circa 2012, Apple/Snorcle have shutdown the ability to run client Snow Leopard through virtualization). Give it some memory and its own virtual disk, and one’s PPC apps are back in business on any modern Intel machine.

VM works fine for Creative Suite apps. The iMac’s 12GB of DRAM is able to handle simultaneous VMs with no problem. Yet there are issues that render the VM solution untenable for other PPC apps. There is no firewire access inside VBox (needed by my external audio I/F); there is no audio in/out from VBox (needed by my ear training software); a USB hardware license key was not recognized, rendering my synthesizer editor/librarian inoperable. Further, the video window seems size-limited to 1440×900; I don’t know how to make it bigger. Thus, native PPC hardware is a requirement for me.

My old PPC hardware of choice consists of a pair of PPC PowerBooks, a 12″ running at 1.33 GHz and a 15″ running at 1.67 GHz with 2 gb ram and dual-layer Superdrive; both boot into Tiger (classic) and Leopard. I had the small one from new, but retired it years ago. I bought the large one for $85 from fleabay. Both work and look as new. These portables handle those PPC applications that need real hardware support, and both run Classic mode for OS9 emulation as well. The large fast one is my studio PPC host. The small one has been re-activated as my go-to portable.

A G4 PowerBook is quiet enough to use in my studio (no G5 PowerBook was ever produced, due to excessive heat and power consumption of the G5 chips). Since PPC Power Macs are old-school noisy, they are suitable for garage duty only.

A quiet notebook will see double duty. I had been struggling using an iPad for my mobile computing needs. Liking to write, I will be pleased to have a 12″ PowerBook back in my mobile arsenal. Nothing goes to waste in my e-world. This PowerBook also serves as portable recording studio, with addition of two high-end mics and an audio interface.

Realizing My Retro-Ranch

Saving old software and hardware definitely makes a retro habit easier to afford. An attic then becomes a treasure chest. I have saved copies of every prior Mac OS I’ve purchased, from 6.x-10.9. I am finding current use for OS 9.2.2, 10.4.11 (last supporting Classic VM), 10.5.8 (last to run on PPC), 10.6.8 (last with Rosetta PPC capability over Intel). Apple still supports all their OS X systems with updates, although technical documentation support and the base OS releases are no longer available; one must acquire the media elsewhere.

After I retrieved all my old floppy data, I decided the G3 was too limited for active duty as a general server and it languishes on its garage bench, still on the LAN and available to run any OS 9 applications that cannot run under Classic or SheepShaver (but now used mainly for displaying scanned repair manual pages useful for other garage hobbies). Because of its Old World ROM, I am technically in compliance with Apple intellectual property restrictions regarding use of the SheepShaver emulator.

The latest hardware to boot OS9 are the Titanium PowerBook and the Mirror Door G4 Power Mac. But for OS9 applications, none are compelling upgrades from the G3.

Now I have realized a tiered, networked computing environment, with High Sierra (2017), Leopard (2007), Tiger/Classic (2004), and OS 9 (1999) running concurrently on three different Macs: 27″ iMac (2009), 15″ G4 PowerBook (2005), G3 Beige Power Mac (1998). This represents a new (for me) dimension of distributed computing: distributed over time as well as space, spanning the last 18 years.

My server farm is a working retro-ranch. There are no gratuitous, unused systems here. Everything is needed and used. As general computing appliances, my PPC machines still provide a modern experience. Thanks to Mozilla, there is a tabbed browser available for OS X 10.4 and above (TenFourFox), and similarly a mail app (TenFourBird).

Retro-Ranch Configuration

All three computers connect to our LAN via wired ethernet (NetGear Powerline transceivers, the early version with fast ethernet interface). The lowly fast ethernet interface still exceeds the capacity of our barely adequate house electrical wiring (measured 45-75mb/s, depending on its mood/load). The LAN bandwidth is sufficient for all tasks to date.

I have devised a means to extend wired LAN access without any more transceivers.  I located an old Asante fast ethernet router that had resided in a box in the attic since around the turn of the century. I’ve reconfigured the router as a switch by turning off DHCP and manually assigning it a static IP address outside the my FIOS router’s DHCP address block. I also retrieved my one and only X-over ethernet cable from the attic, gnawed long ago by rodents but still functional. Connecting the switch to a Powerline transceiver via the X-over cable provides a three port wired connection that can be shared by other wired servers as needed if the ranch grows. Note, if you don’t have a spare x-over ethernet cable, try a regular ethernet cable; most modern routers can detect inputs via their output ports.

I maintain three LaCie external drive enclosures for physically moving drives around the LAN: 2TB WD and Hitachi drives,  and 1TB Seagate drive. The WD drive wouldn’t mount at first. It needed a jumper to throttle its native speed by half to match slower SATA architecture. The Hitachi drive is self-adapting as expected, yet another kudo for Hitachi drives (in addition to their industry-leading reliability).

The LaCie cases do double duty as firewire daisy-chain ports and 400/800 converters, which allow me to greatly leverage the single firewire 800 port on the iMac.

One thing to note: drive formatting, affecting bootable drives, changed between PPC Open Firmware  and Intel Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) Macs. I learned this when trying to install Leopard on the 12″ PowerBook, which had decided not to read the Install DVD.

My only option besides replacing the optical drive was to use a firewire external drive as the installer boot device. I creating one via Disk Utility, performing a restore with erase of a disk image of the Leopard install DVD.  Unfortunately, the created drive would not boot.

Searching the Internet, I found the answer. Intel-formatted drives will not boot on PPC architecture, and vice versa. The external drive had been formatted on an Intel mac, using a GPT (GUID Partition Table). I needed to repartition the drive on the G4 PowerBook, selecting ‘Options’ and then selecting an APM (Apple Partition Map).

Macintosh Archaeology

My Beige G3 notes are a story unto themselves, perhaps of interest to those with an obsessive tinkering streak. Once any further need for OS9-booting hardware, ADB  and RS-422 interfaces, or Old World ROM have vanished, my Beige G3 may also vanish. But I think it still has a lot of life.


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