Back from the Low End Mac Mailbag is another excellent piece from longtime reader and now contributor, Adam Goff. Enjoy Adam’s excellent take on how Mac OS 9 is still alive and kicking today – over 24 years later!
Introduction – It’s the late 1990s/early 00s.. Macs (and their accessories) Become Fashion Trends
In 2002 Apple was full steam ahead into its transition of a brand that became synonymous with fashion and trend which began in 1998 with the introduction of the iMac G3, leaving behind their dowdy, beige days that ended with the original Power Mac G3 tower and desktop from 1997. These iMacs (and other machines/accessories) of the late 1990s and early 2000s transformed Apple into a candy coated, earbud dangling juggernaut that would not only catapult it into being the world’s most valuable company, but also inspire a whole generation of artists, content producers, and hipsters alike.
However, despite the success gained from its headline capturing designs like the iMac, iBook, and of course – iPod, a key part of Apple’s strategy to make the Mac the best it could be had yet to be fully realized.
Background and How Apple Revolutionized its Operating System for the World Stage
Apple had been working in earnest on porting NeXT’s OpenStep operating system to the Mac’s PowerPC platform since 1997 to inject some exciting new life into the user experience Mac OS 7 (previously System 7) and Mac OS 8 had provided, but progress was less than stellar. For those unfamiliar, OpenStep was a product of NeXT Computer – the company Steve Jobs founded after his exit from Apple Computer in 1985. After a brief (and largely unsuccessful) stint in the 68K workstation manufacturer market, NeXT soon exited the hardware business and focused attention on their excellent operating system, NeXTSTEP. NeXTSTEP would evolve into OpenStep and in 1994 was ported to a variety of system architectures including SPARC (Sun), PA-RISC (HP) and most notably – the x86 platform. As a result, by 1997 OpenStep was highly optimized for the x86 architecture. I can personally attest to this. I have the last publicly released version of x86 OpenStep (in the form of Apple’s Rhapsody DR2) installed on an IBM Aptiva sporting a 200 MHz Pentium MMX processor. I also have copies of Rhapsody DR2 and Mac OS X Server 1.0 running on my PowerMac 9600 with it’s range topping 350MHz 604e processor. Despite being a slower and technically inferior processor, the old Pentium trounces the 9600 at running what is essentially the same operating system due to how optimized it was.
I don’t bring this up to reignite any decades old arguments about which platform was, is, or could have been better – but provide this example as a simple point of reference to illustrate just how well optimized the platform was for x86. To that point, it was going to be a Herculean task porting and optimizing Apple’s shiny new operating system for the PowerPC platform (originally meant to be a direct port of NeXTSTEP – early builds of Mac OS X would however turn to be more loosely based on it).
Anyone who recalls using early builds of OS X remembers the user experience all too well. It was slow, clunky, and full of bugs – all of which took time to iron out. After five long years of hype and promises, Apple was finally confident that OS X was ready for prime-time with the release of 10.2 Jaguar in August 2002. Well-designed retail packaging, full printed manuals and lots of marketing around how many new features were being introduced in Mac OS X Jaguar (notably FireWire, USB 2.0, and Quartz Extreme Graphics Acceleration) showed how much effort and care Apple put into the product.
By October of that same year, Apple was so pleased with the feedback surrounding 10.2 Jaguar, that they famously and rather (un)ceremoniously took OS 9 behind the woodshed and dragged its remains on stage in a mock “funeral”, so as they say – that was that. From then on, Apple was fully committed to OS X development only and all of its eventual permutations (macOS, iOS, iPadOS, WatchOS) , leaving the “Happy Mac” boot icon (last seen officially with builds of Mac OS 9.2.2) consigned to the dustbin of history – or was it???
OS 9 Lives (Lived?)
While Apple may have washed its hands of their legacy operating system, many longtime Mac users weren’t so keen to jump blindly into the BSD based bandwagon. There was a familiarity with Mac OS 9, not to mention a vast back catalog of software people had come to rely on. Apple tried mitigating this with their “blue box” implementation of OS 9 known as the “Classic Environment” and
even though this did a decent job at providing support for the old Carbon based application base – it wasn’t foolproof and left a lot to be desired – especially in terms of support for 3D acceleration for older games, and in some more extreme cases the Classic Environment wouldn’t work at all to run certain programs that required Mac OS 9 or earlier to run properly. As a result, many users simply kept booting directly into Apple’s abandoned operating system with all hardware that could natively do so and did this for far longer than Cupertino probably expected.
It wasn’t until Apple dropped support for the Classic Environment in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard that most of the holdouts finally stopped holding out. Mac OS X and it’s available software library had matured enough to satisfy most needs and the ever changing nature of the modern web left older machines running Mac OS 8 and Mac OS 9 sorely lacking in their ability to render web pages properly. While it became less and less practical to run operating systems such as Mac OS 9 as a daily driver, that didn’t mean it was completely useless and didn’t have its admirers. So, in 2012 – a full decade after Apple dropped support for the system, the strangest thing happened – a little website popped up celebrating the antiquated code base, MacOS9Lives.com.
Now I will admit, my personal experience with OS 9 as a production platform was not exactly positive. I thought it was a bit buggy, needlessly bloated, and anything but quick with regards to feel and responsiveness. As a result, I stayed with 7.6-8.5 on all of my machines at the time. I only booted into OS 9 when I absolutely had to or when the machine wouldn’t boot into anything earlier
such as my PowerBook “Pismo” and PowerMac G4 “Digital Audio”. Even with that machine’s 533 MHz G4 and hefty (for the time) 1GB of ram, I found OS 9’s performance to be annoying on a good day and downright frustrating on a bad one. This was just my experience, so your mileage may have varied.
I was all in with OS X 10.2 and I happily never looked back, so it’s easy to say I was a bit befuddled by these bold claims on this new website. “Luddites!” I exclaimed at the time – “bunch of hopped-up hippies driving their old VW Beetles 50 MPH on a four lane highway,” I cried! After regaining my composure (or being distracted by something shiny), I quickly moved on and didn’t really think about the site for the better part of the next decade.
As that time elapsed, MacOS9Lives managed to strike a chord with a fairly large group of people and it evolved to include online forums, and from those forums sprang some pretty unexpected results. One of them being the rather ingenious work that went into forcing OS 9.2.2 installations on to a number of late-model G4 machines that Apple only natively supported booting into OS X. Such models include all of the Aluminum PowerBooks, 800 MHz+ iMac G4s, iBook G4s, and of particular interest to me – the Mac Mini G4s.
Editor’s Note – While many other G4 Macs that were not intended to boot OS 9 natively can do so with the MacOS9Lives build of Mac OS 9, performance can be somewhat buggy and only certain graphics solutions tend to work fully with 3D acceleration – namely those that actually had Mac OS 9 drivers, such as the Radeon 9200 found in the 2004 eMac G4 and late model Mac Mini G4 (1.42 GHz and 1.5 GHz).
I adored the Mini G4 when it was released and ended up buying one the “silent” upgrade models – specifically the 1.33GHz version. It was used as a second “family” desktop for several years and then as a file and print server for a few years more, not fully retiring the machine until around 2011. After that, it sat on a shelf serving nothing but an ornamental purpose until just recently. Not needing
yet another machine running Mac OS X 10.4/10.5, I originally looked at the possibility of installing some flavor of Linux on it, however that thought quickly waned because honestly – Linux on PPC has always been a dumpster fire. After a bit more research, there I was once again looking at that little website I saw back in 2012 and ultimately decided I would give OS 9 a shot on the machine – more as a novelty if nothing else.
I was immediately impressed with how seamless the Mac OS 9 Lives folks made the process of installing the system. All of the necessary patches, updated ROMs, and required utilities were all bundled into a restore installer on a bootable ISO. It really is as simple as downloading the appropriate image for your machine, burning it to a blank CD, popping it into the machine, and booting holding the “C” key. From there, you’re greeted with a colorfully updated Happy Mac icon and a familiar desktop which automatically launches into Drive Setup (needed to install OS 9 Hard Disk drivers) and an icon to “Restore Mac OS.” From download to installation reboot took all of perhaps 20 minutes – it really is that slick.
Overall Impressions of Use with Mac OS 9 Lives and My Mac Mini G4
First impressions were immediately favorable. The system is surprisingly stable and silly fast. Mac OS 9 really benefits from an overpowered G4 processor, gobs of RAM, and a fast 133/167 MHz system bus. I liken it to never finding Windows actually usable until Windows 10 was released and I started running it on 20 Xeon cores and 32GB of ram – sometimes simple brute force makes a world of difference. On the hardware end of the Mac Mini G4 and the unofficial Mac OS 9 Lives build for the machine, just about
everything works with the machine and is supported, with the exception of Airport and Bluetooth (Editors Note: AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth were never officially supported by Mac OS 9 anyway). Sound is a bit of a mixed bag. All system sounds (alerts, etc) are disabled, however sound output from many applications such as iTunes or the Apple DVD Player still work. Supposedly the
headphone jack should give a very low line-out, but I couldn’t get anything from mine, so I ended up buying an inexpensive Sabrent USB audio device from Amazon which is automatically recognized by any Mac from 8.5+.
So what can you do with it? Well, let’s first address the elephant in the room – the internet is still lousy on OS 9. Despite Cameron Kaiser’s genius effort put into his Classilla browser project, he’s pretty much squeezed every ounce of usability from the now 20+ year old underlying networking frameworks. A lot of websites still render “ok” in the browser, but most of the modern web will simply cause it to spit back an error. Also, file sharing with other machines on your network takes a bit more forethought these days as OS 9’s implementation of AppleTalk will only work with OS X versions up to 10.4 Tiger. In Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) and later, AppleTalk will not function at all without some difficult technical workarounds, so a “bridge” Mac is generally recommended (for those not familiar with that term – bridge Macs are machines that can handle both legacy and modern technologies and can be networked between both old and new hardware). It is also possible to wring out a bit more usability by setting up a web proxy such as macHTTP and running a small Netatalk server on one of your modern Macs (this is something I’d like to feature in the future).
Beyond that? Anything you used to run back in the 90s should still run on these “unsupported” installations – it will just run them crazy fast. If you do not already have a personal library of old software to run, I would recommend heading over to the MacintoshGarden and start perusing their vast repository of “abandonware” software titles. To get started, here’s a brief list of what I consider “must-haves”:
Classilla 9.3.4 – The most capable internet browser available for Mac OS 9.
Fetch 3.0.3 – The last free version of the venerable FTP utility.
iTunes 2.0.4 – Of course, for your tunes…
Garden iTunes (Nubango Radio Patch) – Restores (some) internet radio capability to iTunes.
AppleWorks 6 – The last version of the much loved office productivity suite, previously known as ClarisWorks.
I fully acknowledge I originally did this little project as a lark more than anything. However, after having OS 9 installed on the G4 Mini for the past week or so, I began re-evaluating the situation. Seeing first hand its speed/stability and being able to revisit a number of favorite software titles in an environment I’d dare say is enjoyable has led me to the conclusion this is really no different than my recent effort to downgrade versions of Mac OS X on my older Intel hardware.
The Mac Mini G4 is just about the perfect, retro OS 9 platform – it’s fast, it’s cool (both temperature… and looks), it’s quiet, it’s unobtrusive with its small footprint, and it doesn’t require a small nuclear power plant to run… all good things! Most importantly, it returns purpose and functionality to an unused machine and that makes me happy. And to the clever luddites over at the MacOS9Lives forums – you have my thanks and appreciation. Keep up the good work… I’ll be waiting for that G5 port. ;-)