Mac Lab Report

Apple Should Make OS 9 Free

- 2005.08.31

Looking back, I seem to have developed a pretty good track record for either predicting what Apple will do or giving them ideas they follow up on - or maybe I'm just ignoring the 95% of my predictions/requests that get ignored.

I called for a headless iMac, and lo, the Mac mini appears. I was the last holdout supporting a one-button mouse, and when I finally changed my mind, presto, we got the Mighty Mouse. Aaaanyway, I've got another idea I've mentioned before, but the timing is better now. This one has to do with releasing OS 9.2 as a free download.

The conditions under which Apple might consider such a move are:
  1. The current crop of machines will not boot under 9.2.
  2. The youngest machines that will boot under 9.2 will not boot under the current version of OS X
  3. There is some value to be gained in market share by encouraging upgrades of older machines while they are still compatible with newer machines. By which I mean software that runs on both OS 9 and X.
  4. Apple could use some free friendly publicity in the OS market.

Well, today, #1 is true; my PowerBook G4 won't boot in OS 9, and nothing else currently on the market will either. That's been true for about two years.

Industry cycles usually call for replacing computers every three years (although Mac users tend to hang on to their machines longer). Since people upgrading to a new machine will not be able to purchase an OS 9 bootable machine, they'll either cling to the old one or get a new Mac with OS X. If they cling to the old Mac, Apple loses a sale, and if they get a new Mac, booting into OS 9 isn't an option.

But what happens to the older machine? It gets handed to a school, a charity, or a relative, and they use it with OS 9. Making OS 9 free makes this hand-me-down market happy - which keeps the donators happy as well and builds good will for Apple.

As far as #2 goes, we're not yet at the point where the youngest machines that will run OS 9.2 (equipment issued in 2003 such as the 1 GHz TiBook and earlier) won't run OS X. Apple claims that Tiger will boot on any PowerPC G3 with sufficient RAM and hard drive space - that includes machines all the way back to the beige G3 machines Apple made and the pre-iMac G3 All-in-One machine that looks like a molar.

However, beige G3's won't take Tiger (or Panther either, for that matter) unless you help them along by installing XPostFacto. Since most regular users don't do anything requiring such steps, we'll designate the Blue and White G3 tower as the oldest desktop Mac to meet this condition. I know (see Mac OS X and the Blue and White G3 Firmware Update Problem) that a B&W G3 will boot in OS X (and actually runs okay if it has enough RAM and hard drive space). In most cases I would think that does require an upgrade from the original specs of some sort. (Editor's note: I have Tiger running on a 350 MHz B&W G3. It's very usable.)

Given this criteria, Apple has nothing to gain by releasing 9.2 for free for these machines, since the user could conceivably purchase a copy of OS X.

All of this, however, may change with the new OS being developed for Intel hardware. It's pretty likely these older machines won't run any variety of 10.5; in which case Apple has nothing to lose by offering OS 9 (or even Tiger, for that matter) as a free download.

Just as it did with OS 9 and iTunes, Apple can offer a tantalizing glimpse of what's possible and then remove the older OS from the development cycle; a sort of sophisticated sales pitch. iTunes was originally available for OS 9, but newer versions only runs in OS X.

Since Apple has announced that it is moving to Intel hardware, there will be some inevitable incompatibilities. Apple faced this when it switched from the old Motorola 680x0 chips to PowerPC hardware back in the early 1990s, again when they switched to G3 processors, and yet again when they introducing OS X.

When OS X on Intel ships, Apple has already decided that classic isn't worth adapting to run on the new machines (although I think of a lot of low-end users would disagree). At that point, like OS 7.5.5, it might be a good idea just to post OS 9.2.2 as a free download as a goodwill gesture.

I think Apple should seriously discuss this idea in a mid-level executive boardroom somewhere and bring it to Mr. Jobs as a way of one-upping Microsoft once again as a company that cares about its users. The users most likely to have older G3 equipment were early adopters when Jobs returned to Apple and are the ones who carried Apple through the Dark Times, you might recall.

In a recent article, Robert X. Cringely expands on a reader's suggestion for Apple to include a bootable version of OS X for Intel on new iPods, just to infect Intel users with Apple fever. I doubt that will happen. But when every PowerPC computer becomes obsolete, there might just be some goodwill to be spread by supporting the users who have stuck with the company for many years.

Apple gets roundly criticized (and rightly so) for providing no upgrade price for the various versions of OS X. Perhaps the payoff is that after going through and paying for three to five major revisions, we get the classic Mac operating system for free.

Which means we might be getting Tiger for free in about 10 years when Apple is shipping OS X 10.11 (Thundercat) or something.

I'll be waiting.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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