Mac Musings

Early G3s Losing Support

Dan Knight - 2001.12.14

Nearly four years ago I wrote an editorial, Disposable Computers?, that addressed the then-new issue of disposable computers - defined as computers with low cost and no real upgrade potential. I stated that, "PCs, XTs, and ATs may be as dead as dodos, but even an ancient Mac Plus, now 144 computer years old [1 month = 1 computer year], remains a useful computer."

While disposable computers may seem a way of life in the Windows world (something I'm doing a little bit to fight with Low End PC), Macs have traditionally had very long useful life spans. But that may be changing.

What prompted this article was Remy Davison asking on Insanely Great Mac, Is Your G3 Obsolete Already? Although Apple still supports the beige G3 and PowerBook G3 (WallStreet) under Mac OS X, it looks like the forthcoming Norton Utilities 7.0 - the version being written to run under OS X - will not. Let's hope this doesn't imply future versions of OS X will abandon these machines in the near future.

This isn't as bad as it sounds, although it isn't good. Mac OS X can run on some unsupported hardware, including some clones. And Norton Utilities 6.0 will diagnose and repair OS X partitions, but it does so while running the classic Mac OS.

Still, the life span of Macs is declining. Some examples.

  • The first two Macs, the 128k and 512k of 1984, only run System 4.1 or earlier, which was released in April 1987. That's just three years - and the shortest support ever.
  • Of course, both could be updated to a Mac Plus, which Apple sold from 1/1986 through 10/1990. The Mac Plus will run everything from System 3.2 through 7.5.5, which was released in October 1996 - over ten years after the Plus was first produced. There are still Mac users contentedly using a Mac Plus, SE, or Classic with System 6.0.x or 7.x, although Apple discontinued all hardware support for the older two in August 1998.
  • Next we look at the oldest Mac that works with Mac OS 7.6. The Mac IIci was the first model with "32-bit clean ROMs," making the 9/1989 model the oldest that works under 7.6, which was released in January 1997. That's almost seven-and-a-half years between the hardware introduction and the last OS to support it.
  • On to System 8.1, which "requires" a 68040 or PowerPC processor. (Yes, I know that a lot of '030 systems will run 8.1 with Born Again, but it has no official support from Apple.) The first two Quadras, the 700 and 900, were released in October 1991. Mac OS 8.1 came out in early 1998 - again roughly seven-and-a-half years after the oldest hardware that runs it.
  • The first Power Macs, the 6100, 7100, and 8100, were released in March 1994. Although absolutely unsupported under OS X, they do run Mac OS 9.1, giving them over seven-and-a-half years between release and the current OS.
  • Since OS X doesn't officially support any Mac not designed around the G3 processor, we look to the Power Mac G3 and PowerBook G3 of November 1997 as the oldest models approved to run X. These models are just four years old.

We've been looking at the longest time between hardware release and the last OS that supports it. This in no way makes these computers obsolete, but it does put them in a 1995, 1997, or 1998 time warp.

The question is the future. Any Power Mac or clone produced before November 1997 is not officially supported for OS X or 9.2.x. The PCI models will generally work using Unsupported UtilityX, but some features are unsupported, such as the E100 card in the SuperMacs or accelerated video. As noted recently, Apple doesn't even support video acceleration in iMacs, PowerBooks, etc. produced from 1997 through 1999.

At some point Apple won't just fail to provide support for features such as SCSI ports, floppy drives, ADB, and accelerated video; they will officially abandon older G3 models as OS X evolves. Count on it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Apple could go one of two possible routes. They could follow the Windows model, abandon all support for "ancient" hardware, end-of-life versions of the OS as they go forward, and lock more old Macs in a time warp every year. Or they could follow the open source model, which Darwin hints at, and allow independent programmers to provide the hardware support Apple no longer considers viable.

Either way, we are blessed with generally well designed hardware that lasts a long time and has OS support for much longer than the three to four years Microsoft considers normal. Of course, OS X changes everything, but we can hope and believe that Apple will continue to support older hardware and release older versions of the Mac OS for those with computers that will never run OS X.

Still, it's disturbing when a company like Symantec decides it can abandon support for hardware that Apple actively supports with the latest OS. It's a lot like Office:2001 dropping support for Quadras, even though OS 8.1 ran on both 68040 and PowerPC hardware. It's an unusual step for a software vendor (discounting game companies) to abandon useful hardware before the OS maker.

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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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