Mac Musings

Do the Right Thing, Apple

Daniel Knight - 2001.12.18

I wanted to weigh in on the issue of OS X drivers for older Macs since we posted Katherine Keller's Sorry, Mac-Using Suckers last week. She makes a good point - Apple is increasingly pushing integrated solutions, not upgradable machines - but also misses the point.

For several years Apple has been providing accelerated ATI graphics circuitry as standard features on their computers. The acceleration makes text scroll more smoothly, windows resize more quickly, and games look a whole lot better.

I don't do much gaming - a bit of SimCity 2000 and Shanghai II - so I've never paid too much attention to graphics acceleration, but it was a standard feature on the first Power Mac G3. I'm sure Apple even mentioned in the literature of the day what a wonderful graphics chip it had in the ATI 3D Rage II. And drivers for ATI's video acceleration were part of the Mac OS.

Fast forward to 2001, the year the long awaited messiah of operating systems, Mac OS X, finally snuck out of beta, thrashed around for a while at the 10.0.x level, and then became pretty darn good™ with the 10.1 release.

There's a long, convoluted history behind OS X. Back in the early 90s, Apple was promising that every Mac with a PowerPC chip would be able to run the awesome next generation OS. Copland fizzled. Pink and Taligent are pretty much forgotten. Apple bought NeXT, cobbled together a NeXTstep, BSD Unix, Mac OS hybrid under the code name Rhapsody, and finally delivered the beta in late 2000.

By then the writing was on the wall: Only Macs designed around a G3 or G4 CPU would be supported. No support for NuBus Power Macs, PowerPC Performas, or upgraded PCI Macs and clones designed around the 601, 603, or 604. Nope, just G3s - and not even the original PowerBook G3.

Essentially you need a Mac released November 15, 1997 or later if you want to be fully supported under Mac OS X. And now we learn that even standard hardware features such as the ATI accelerated graphics aren't being supported. Not cool.

Really not cool. Aqua and the OS X appearance manager are power hungry. Quartz cries out for accelerated graphics, but those with 1997-99 Macs are left out in the cold. Instead of the accelerated graphics we had under Mac OS 8 and 9, the CPU has to do all the hard work in X, making the OS slower than it ought to be.

Apple's Best Interest

As Keller pointed out in her article, it's in Apple's best interest to have you buy a new Mac every 3-5 years. After all, they're first and foremost a hardware company (remember, to run their OS, you have to first have their hardware). By not supporting graphics acceleration on the early generation G3s, Apple not only saves some development time and money, they also provide incentive for those with older Power Macs, PowerBooks, and iMacs to consider buying a whole new computer to obtain a better OS X experience.

Of course, at that point they get OS X free with the new computer, but I'm sure Apple makes a heck of a lot more from even an entry-level iMac than they do from a $129 copy of OS X.

But, But, But

No, you're right, it's not fair. But Apple is no more about being fair than Microsoft. Well, maybe they're not that bad. After all, you can download System 6.0.8 and 7.5.3 for free - try to get a free copy of Window (any version) from Microsoft. Yeah, Apple is nicer than that.

So these people have Macs that are 2-4 years old, models that are fully supported under Mac OS X, yet Apple doesn't want to support graphics acceleration. Maybe there's a legitimate reason for that, and those with Power Macs can remedy the situation with an ATI Radeon card - but what about the iMac and PowerBook owners?

Apple built 'em, promoted them as having accelerated graphics and being ready for OS X. I'd say that means they should announce their intention to support graphics acceleration. Maybe it won't be ready this month, but how about mid-2002? Or just let us know you're working on it, not hanging us out to dry.

How We Can All Benefit

Apple has one alternative: The open source community. If they don't want to create the OS X drivers for these antiquated graphics chips, it would show good will if they threw the project open to programmers as they've done with Darwin. This could be a first step toward extending OS X to older hardware platforms, officially or unofficially, such as the multiprocessor DayStar Genesis models, the six-slot Power Mac 9600 and SuperMac S900, and all the other Power Macs, Performas, and clones with PCI slots.

We would benefit by being able to more fully utilize OS X on older hardware. For instance, I have someone setting up a DayStar Genesis with four 200 MHz 604e processors - we'd love to run X, but even though Unsupported UtilityX would let us install it, it won't use more than one CPU at present.

Be adding drivers for the early G3s in the short term and allowing independent developers to support older PCI models, Apple would grow the market for Mac OS X and sell more copies, creating a larger market for OS X applications and letting even low-end Mac users to try this remarkable new OS.

Supporting the accelerated graphics chips hardwired into the older G3 models is the right thing for Apple to do and the least they should do for G3 owners. I've already signed the petition asking Apple to provide OS X graphics drivers for these models. I urge you to join over 2,500 Mac users and do the same.