Mac Musings

Good Enough or Better Yet?

Daniel Knight - 2003.08.11

Whether you use Windows, Linux, or the Mac OS, several times a year you're faced with upgrade decisions. Should you install the latest software update, or are there problems it creates that you want to avoid? Should you migrate from your current OS to the latest and greatest? And should you replace your weary old computer with a newer, faster, even better one?

The good is the enemy of the best, as the saying goes, and that really came to a head last week when we published Why I'm Sticking with Mac OS 9 and Not Switching to OS X by John Droz Jr. Many sympathized with Droz, who asked why Apple had to change so many interface conventions that had been established in the classic Mac OS for years.

On Applelinks, Charles W. Moore states, "The current state of my thinking on this topic is that OS 9's user interface is still the best that has ever been developed for a personal computer OS - head and shoulders above OS X or any other OS GUI. Panther may improve things somewhat, but OS 9 is still the high water mark. Its spatial stability and predictability is one reason, and its many user-friendly features like windowshading, single-clickable icon mode (Buttons), the Application Switcher, and more are things I miss."

Others, to put it bluntly, say Droz is simply wrong to stick with OS 9 and wrong to recommend his clients do the same. Damien Barrett writes, "There's nothing wrong with Mac OS 9, except that it's a dead OS. Apple end-of-lifed (EOL'd) it. There is no more support for it." It's an evolutionary dead end, so why stick with it?

Gene Steinberg makes his case in Sticking with Mac OS 9 for All the Wrong Reasons: "...since Mac OS 9 hasn't been updated in quite a while, and I have extremely limited resources, I have refrained from providing very much in the way of troubleshooting information for that system. Except in passing perhaps. I have to move on."

Right and Wrong

My position is more akin to that of Droz and Moore. I also wonder why Apple had to break so many standards that Mac users had become accustomed to over nearly 20 years. If cmd-N always made a new folder in the classic Mac OS, why does it create a new Finder window now? Why change new folder to cmd-shift-N when I make new folders far more often than I open a new Finder window?

If cmd-M made an alias in System 7 and Mac OS 9, why change it to cmd-L in OS X? If aliases have always had their names displayed in italic type in the classic Mac OS, why eliminate that when adding a visual "this is an alias" indicator to the icon? OS X can definitely display italic type, and by both changing the icon and retaining italic, Apple could have removed a source of confusion.

Barrett and Steinberg understand that some users have a compelling reason to stick with the Mac OS they know and love, but they also see the classic Mac OS as an evolutionary dead end. There is no more OS 9 development at Apple. Mac OS X is the future.

Further, Mac OS X is superior to OS 9 in many respects. It's virtually bullet proof. It handles multiple tasks and multiple processors far better than the classic Mac OS ever did. Quartz Extreme lets more modern X-boxes display video with alacrity.

But it's not a comfortable old shoe. For long-term Mac users, OS 9 is an evolutionary outgrowth of the original Mac OS that has been Macintosh 128Kevolving since the Macintosh 128K shipped in 1984. The Mac OS evolved from a single-tasking OS with a 1-bit b&w display on a single monitor to a multitasking OS that supported multiple monitors at up to 24-bit color.

It was a slow, gradual evolution with a few jumps, particularly when System 7 made multitasking the norm, added color to the Finder, and broke a lot of software.

There are people who still use System 6 today. They often use compact Macs, such as the Plus, SE/30, and Color Classic. They recognize that today's computers are a lot faster and have operating systems with a lot more features, but for the tasks they do, System 6 and an ancient Mac are all they need.

Others are using some version of System 7, and they still debate the merits of System 7.1 vs. 7.5.5 on our mailing lists. Still others are content with Mac OS 8.1 or 8.6. And others think OS 9.2.2 is the best Mac OS ever.

The thing is, none of them are wrong. OS 9 vs. X - or 6 vs. 7 - isn't a matter of right or wrong. It's a matter of good enough. If System 6 or OS 9.2.2 does everything you need and does it well on the hardware you own, that's what's right for you.

We need to bury the religious fervor that some particular incarnation of the Mac OS, some specific version of Windows, some brand of Linux distribution is the be all and end all of operating systems. It just isn't so.

Those who have embraced and love OS X need not disparage those who are content with what works for them. They should feel free to explain why they have decided to move to a more advanced OS, but they shouldn't belittle those who have made a different choice.

Who cares if OS 9 is an evolutionary dead end? Has the demise of the Oldsmobile brand given every Olds owner a reason to sell their older car and buy a new one just because the nameplate is gone? Of course not. Ditto for older Macs and older operating system.

Good Enough and Better

At Low End Mac, we take an agnostic position regarding the best Mac OS. We do believe that Apple makes and had made some of the best operating systems on the planet, but some appreciate Windows 2000, Linux, or BeOS. We do believe that the world would be a better place if everyone used Macs, but we realize that Windows in entrenched - and good enough for most people.

That's the crux of the issue. Windows is good enough for most people. It's not perfect, but neither are Linux, BeOS, OS/2, or any version of the Mac OS. The classic Mac OS is good enough for most old timers. Mac OS X may be better in some ways, but the old OS we know and use is good enough. It works. It works well. We are productive. We are happy. We don't need anything better.

So the good is the enemy of the best, but that doesn't mean that the good is wrong or outdated, nor that the best is right for everyone. The Power Mac G5 will be a much better computer than my 700 MHz eMac, but that's no reason to buy one. The eMac is good enough for what I do.

Just as OS 9 is no longer being developed, the 2002 eMac is no longer being developed. So what? It's good enough, and I don't anticipate buying another computer until the equipment I have becomes as much a bottleneck as a productivity tool. And that may not happen for years.

It really doesn't matter that a particular version of the OS, piece of hardware, or software program is no longer being developed. As long as it keeps doing what needs to be done, it's good enough.

Capitalism vs. Consumerism

Capitalism is based on the premise that people get to make choices. We decide when our cars are worth repairing and when they should be replaced. We decide whether to go Windows, Mac, or Linux. We decide when to buy new hardware, software, and operating systems.

Consumerism is based on the premise that newer is better. The old is inferior, therefore it is bad. "Buy new every two" is the slogan of a local car dealer - and a lot of computer users feel the same way. Newer may be better, and it's definitely better for Apple if we buy new computers and copies of the Mac OS regularly, but newer isn't always the best choice.

The Low End Mac philosophy is to know what your Mac can do, know how much it can be improved with upgrades, decide whether upgrading or replacing makes more sense in your situation, and then make an informed decision about staying put, upgrading, or buying a newer computer. It's the practical approach - the capitalist's approach - to the unending upgrade spiral.

It's Not Obsolete Until I Say It Is

But those who preach consumerism try to push our buttons and get us to move forward. Whether it's the sex appeal or bragging rights over power, the Power Mac G5 calls to all of us. But we can resist, either because we don't need that much power or because we simply can't afford it. Or we may know that we really do need the power because even a fast G4 is a bottleneck for our productivity.

Just because a piece of hardware, a program, or an operating system is no longer being developed is no reason to abandon it. Good enough is good enough.

Mac OS X is a wonderful operating system, and I'm very happy to have made the switch, but I can't say I'm any more productive. I do get to use Safari, iTunes 4, and iPhoto, but I could have lived without them. iChat is cool, although I don't really have any need for it. I long for the better version of Mail that will be included with Panther.

Then again, I've always seen the operating system and applications as works in progress. System 7.5.5 was great, but there were ways to improve it. Mac OS 9.2.2 is very solid, but it has room for improvement - although that will no longer come from Apple.

Still, sometimes the old OS and software are good enough. I still run a lot of classic applications - Claris Home Page, BBEdit Lite v4.6, Claris Emailer, POPmonitor 1.1, Mizer 1.3, WebChecker, Photoshop 5.5, FileMaker Pro 3.0, and X-Launch among them. None are quite perfect, but I haven't found a need to replace them.

I'm still amazed at how well OS X handles almost every classic Mac program on my computer. The integration of the classic environment with the new OS is brilliant and makes the transition to OS X far less painful than it would otherwise be.

Still, you need a fast Mac, a big hard drive (by low-end standards), and lots of memory to really get good OS X performance. And despite the improvements, there aren't many places where the new OS is faster than the classic one - although Panther may tell a different story.

Regardless, the success of 8 million users with OS X is no reason for anyone to switch from the classic Mac OS. Nor is the fact that OS 9 is "dead." As long as it works, it's not dead, not on life support, but alive and well. Apple may no longer profit from it, but as long as Mac users are using the classic Mac OS productively, it lives on.

We may lust for faster computers and cooler features, but Low End Mac wants everyone to take a reality check each time new hardware and software is introduced. Is there a reason to make the change? Will you really be more productive? Will it make your life easier? Or is it just the desire to have the latest and greatest?

If you're in the right place, does it really make sense to move somewhere else?

We're practical about our Macs. The good enough is the enemy of the best - and we wouldn't have it any way.

Long live the good enough.