Apple Startup Disk History: An Example of Focus

I recently installed every version of Apple’s operating system that is compatible with the 1999 Blue & White G3 Power Mac – 11 major Mac operating systems: 8.5, 8.6, 9.0, 9.1, 9.2, 10.0, 10.1, 10.2, 10.3, 10.4, and Mac OS X Server 1.2.

Blue and White Power Mac G3One curiosity I noticed was how Apple had changed the Startup Disk utility over the years and I decided to examine the differences more closely. The utility is accessed through ‘Control Panel’ on Classic Mac OS versions or ‘System Preferences’ on Mac OS X.

Mac OS Up to 9.0

Mac OS 8.5, 8.6, and 9.0 provide very basic control. Only one operating system per volume is permitted, since the user must select the Volume, not the operating system to be used. The utility is completely unaware of volumes not formatted with HFS or HFS+; therefore it ignores Unix formatted volumes, including Rhapsody_unix as used by Mac OS X Server.

Additionally the user has no way of changing the window size; it is always as shown: two columns wide, three rows high. It hints back to an earlier time of more limited resources.

Mac OS 8 Startup Disk

The very basic Mac OS 8 Startup Disk utility

Note that I named the volumes according to the relevant OS; the utility does not display any OS information, and has no mechanism to do so.

Rhapsody: Mac OS X Server 1.x

Apple, in the late 90s, was working hard to release the first version of their new operating system based on the NeXTstep codebase acquired with the purchase of NeXT in 1996. The first publicly available version of the new operating system was Mac OS X Server 1.0 released on 16 Mar 1999. Internally this was called Rhapsody, and the Unix command uname will reveal this.

What did Apple do with the Startup Disk utility? They removed it altogether!

The focus of Mac OS X Server 1.x is Web Serving and QuickTime Streaming, and it was intended to be installed on a dedicated machine, so I guess Apple felt there was no need for a utility to switch to a different OS.

In fact the same version of the utility described above is supplied, but it does not run in Rhapsody directly, it is buried inside a copy of Mac OS that has to be run in an emulator.

Rhapsody came with Blue Box, which evolved into Classic, an emulator used to run Mac OS inside Mac OS X. Mac OS X Server 1.2 came with Mac OS 8.6 inside a single ‘image’ file, which allowed the full ‘classic’ Mac OS to be run – including the Startup Disk utility. This can see all the available volumes and allows the user to select any one – but doing so can cause Rhapsody to crash!

If any version of Mac OS 8.x is selected, it will work perfectly. However, any higher Mac OS version will cause a fatal freeze of Rhapsody. The only way to restart is to hit the physical restart button; on a Blue & White G3, holding down the power button as used on modern Macs doesn’t work. Once your Mac has restarted you will probably be tempted to launch Mac OS again – don’t bother it will crash immediately again, and again! To recover it is necessary to delete the PRAM file, this is a virtualised version of the real thing, once the file is deleted Mac OS 8.6 will start again successfully and a new file will be created. The PRAM file is found in:

/Local/Library/MacOS/Users/<user name>

If you are running Mac OS X Server 1.x on a volume with other Mac versions and need to change the startup disk, the quickest way is to boot from the PowerMac’s original install disk and use the included utility.

Mac OS 9.1 to the Classic End

Apple were developing Mac OS X as fast as they could and realised that most users would run Mac OS 9 & Mac OS X on a single drive. This meant the old utility was no longer sufficiently capable – a new version had to be made. So with Mac OS 9.1, released on 9 Jan 2001 – just in time for the release of Mac OS X 10.0 Cheetah on 24 Mar 2001 – a completely new Startup Disk utility arrived.

Mac OS 9.1 Startup Disk utility

The highly capable Mac OS 9.1 Startup Disk utility

As can be seen this version of the utility:

  • Supports multiple OS on a single volume, including Mac OS X & Classic on the same volume
  • Identifies the last OS to be booted on the volume
  • Shows volumes as grey when no OS is present
  • Supports Mac OS X (UFS volume) and Mac OS X Server 1.2 (1.x assumed)
  • Provides OS version
  • Supports resizing the window and column widths

This is the most capable Startup Disk utility that Apple created and provides a comprehensive view.

Mac OS X 10.0 – 10.2

Apple took a different route with Mac OS X. Assuming the majority of users would have a simple setup, Apple decided that a simpler presentation was more appropriate, hence the single row presentation that is still in use today.

Two features were particularly important:

  • Support for multiple OS on a single volume, including Mac OS X & Classic on the same volume
  • Support for UFS volumes, i.e. Unix format, the original format for Rhapsody.

By recognising UFS volumes, it is possible to select Mac OS X Server 1.x, shown here as ‘Mac OS X on Disk’; Rhapsody does not identify itself in the same way, hence ‘Mac OS X’ with no version, and creates volumes without names, hence ‘Disk’.

PowerPC 10.2 Startup Disk utility

The reasonably capable PowerPC 10.2 Startup Disk utility

One enhancement is the graphical indication on the folder to illustrate whether the OS is Classic or X, but it isn’t smart enough to illustrate ‘8’ or change the style of ‘X’ to match the OS version. Like the first version it is not possible to change the size.

Mac OS X 10.3 and On

The visual changes mostly followed the changes made to Mac OS X as a whole. However, from Panther, Mac OS X 10.3, it became impossible to select Mac OS X Server 1.x.

PowerPC 10.4 Startup Disk utility

The PowerPC 10.4 Startup Disk utility, still reasonably capable

Apple continued the colourful graphical representation of the selectable OS until the end of the PowerPC era with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard; illustrated below from a different machine.

Intel installations never had the possibility to boot to Classic, or to support multiple OS installations on a single volume, so Apple simplified again and returned to the drive based focus of the original utility.

Intel 10.5 Startup Disk utility

Back to simplicity: Intel 10.5 Startup Disk utility

Today, with 10.10, it is the same, with one small change – the volume name is now first. I have not investigated OS X 10.11, but then that is hardly for a low-end Mac!


Apple succeeds, in part, because it focuses on what matters and is not afraid to cut out that which is unimportant.

During the transition from Classic to X, it was necessary to install multiple operating systems on one partition, and Apple created appropriate tools. Today the requirements are simple, a single OS per partition, and the tool has returned to its original simplicity.


If you like to personalise your Mac, you can change the icon that each volume displays:

  • Find an image you like and copy it to the clipboard (select it and Cmd-c)
  • In Finder, go to Computer select the volume you want to change
  • Use Cmd-i, to get info
  • Click on volume icon in top left
  • Use Cmd-p to paste picture, you will need to enter you password to authorise the change

Now your drive is illustrated by your picture.

Keywords: #startupdisk

Short link:

searchword: startupdisk

One thought on “Apple Startup Disk History: An Example of Focus

  1. It gets more complicated when there are BSDP servers on the local network. I’ve forgotten what version, but we also added such support to the Mac OS 9 version. (I wrote the BSDP client code to pick servers for the Mac OS 9 version.)

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