Mac Musings

Not the End of the Mac as We Know It

Part 2

Daniel Knight - 2001.02.19 -

March 14, 1994: Birth of the Power Mac

The transition from the 68000 CPU to the 68020 in 1987 was fairly painless. Some programs had to be rewritten, but the instruction set was similar, the CPU was faster, and the computer supported even more memory. The transition to the 68030 in 1988 was practically invisible.

There were significant teething pains when the Quadras came out in late 1991. The 68040 was an incredibly powerful chip compared to the 68030 (2.5 to 3 times the speed of a 68030 at the same MHz rating), but the larger cache on the chip "broke" some applications. Microsoft Word was one of many programs that had to be recompiled to work on the 68040.

You would have expected far worse problems when Apple moved from the Motorola 680x0 family of processors to the PowerPC 601 in 1994. You would have been pleasantly surprised to find that Apple's emulator allowed the new Power Macs to run 680x0 programs flawlessly - and often with comparable performance to running it on a genuine 68030-based Mac, albeit an older model.

Power Macs could do this because they ran at higher clock speeds (initially 60-80 MHz) than the older Quadras (25-40 MHz) and because of the efficiencies of a RISC (Reduced Instruction Set) processor. This made upgrading from 3-4 year old Macs almost transparent to the user: Their old applications would run just like before, and programs written for the PowerPC processor would run even faster.

Not the End of the Mac as We Know It

Adding color in 1987 was not the end of the Mac, although some users complained that the hulking Mac II was less elegant and not true to its Mac roots. For them, Apple continued producing b&w compact Macs until the Classic II was discontinued in late 1993. Looking back, we see the seemingly revolutionary changes of 1987 as evolutionary.

Adding multitasking, QuickTime, TrueType, file sharing, color icons, and so much more to the Mac OS in 1991 was not the end of the Mac, although some user complained it took too much memory or ran too slow on their older Macs. Many of those users either upgraded computers or remained content with System 6. And looking back, we see those then-revolutionary changes as evolutionary.

Switching to a new family of processors in 1994 was not the end of the Mac. The old software ran. Most of the old peripherals and NuBus cards also worked. What really was revolutionary appeared as evolutionary, thanks to an excellent 680x0 emulator.

Moving from NuBus slots to PCI in 1995 was not the end of the Mac. Nor was the forced adoption of USB with the iMac in 1998. The hardware and operating system have evolved over 17 years, but a System 6 user would find Mac OS 9.1 pretty familiar - and vice versa.

Through it all, Mac users have had the choice: stick with the old or switch to the new. Some still find a Mac Plus with System 6 comfortably meets their needs. Others my be running a IIfx with System 7.5.5, PowerBook 3400a Quadra 840av with Mac OS 8.1, or an original PowerBook G3 (the only G3 model that won't support OS X) with OS 8.6 or 9.1.

March 24, 2001. Mac OS X

The next step in Mac evolution is OS X, which will be available next month. It's a much bigger change than switching to System 7 or the PowerPC processor was. And, just like most versions of the Mac OS, it will leave some models behind.

But Apple has learned its lessons over the past 17 years. One of the most significant lessons, and perhaps the one Steve Jobs had the hardest time accepting, is the importance of comfort.

As they say, the better is the enemy of the best. Innovative operating systems like BeOS, NeXTstep, and the Amiga OS may be better than Windows (of course!) and the Mac OS (heresy?), but users are hesitant to change.

For instance, Microsoft first shipped Windows in 1987, but it didn't become a moderate success until Windows 3.1 shipped in 1992, and it didn't become the default OS for PCs until Windows 95. It took almost eight years for Microsoft to move users from DOS as default to Windows as default. Now it faces the challenge of getting them to move beyond Win95 or 98 to Windows Me, Windows 2000, or Windows XP.

Just as PC users once knew DOS and now know Win95/98, Mac users know the Mac OS. We are comfortable working one way; if OS X changes that too much, we won't make the upgrade. OS X may offer all the buzzwords and meaningful features imaginable, but if it's too alien, we'll stick with the tried and true. (Yes, you can run the old Mac OS inside OS X, but if that's all you're doing, what's the point of having OS X at all?)

The better is the enemy of the best.

But Apple did something smart: They made OS X available as a beta, and about 100,000 people bought a copy. We tried it. Some of us experimented, never getting quite comfortable with it. Others completely switched to OS X, running their old software in Classic mode. And we let Apple know what we thought of the experience.

Apple listened. They heard us say, "Make it familiar." And they took a lot of our suggestions to heart. When OS X ships on March 24, it will be far less alien than OS X Pubic Beta. It will be more like Mac OS 9.1 - and Apple has been slowly moving the "old" Mac OS in directions that make it more like OS X will be.

Apple is trying to get us to move to a new OS that is vastly superior under the hood. It's less likely to stall, hauls large loads more easily, and provides better protection - but our question is, "How does it handle?"

If we don't like the way it handles, we don't have to use OS X. Every Mac built until July 2001 will be able to run the old Mac OS we're comfortable with. The Mac as we know it will continue to function for years. As the publisher of Low End Mac, I know that as well as anyone.

The question is about the rebirth of the Mac OS, not the death of the Mac. The legacy hardware (1986-2001) and operating systems (6.0.x-9.x) will remain every bit as viable as they have been.

The better is the enemy of the best. Will OS X be familiar enough for us to abandon the "better" Mac OS for the best one? If so, we could see a rebirth of the Macintosh.

If not, we're already working quite nicely with what we have.

Go to Part 1.

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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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