Mac Musings

'Creaky Operating Systems' Good Enough for Millions

Daniel Knight - 2005.02.28

Don't you just hate it when supposed "authorities" on computing can't get their facts straight?

Over the weekend Rob Pegorara posted Creaky Operating Systems Show Their Age on the Washington Post website (free registration required), and he claims that Mac OS 8.0-8.5 don't support USB. Odd, since the first Mac with USB was the 1998 iMac. It shipped with Mac OS 8.1, and USB worked with it.

He also claims, "Not a single modern, compatible browser is available for these systems." I guess he's never heard of iCab, which remains in development for Mac OS 7.1 and later on 680x0-based Macs, 7.6 and later for PowerPC Macs, and Mac OS X. It may not be a perfect browser, but it's definitely modern.

As for Mac OS 8.6-9.2.2, Pegorara claims "there still aren't any good browsers." What about Internet Explorer 5.1? Okay, maybe not the best or most modern browser, but very functional.

There's WaMCom 1.3.1, a build of Mozilla available for Mac OS 8.6-9.2.2. No matter how you look at it, Mozilla has to be classified as a modern browser, even if WaMCom is based on an 18-month-old release of Mozilla source code.

And then there's the Unofficial Mozilla for Mac OS 9 project, which is based on the same 1.3.1 Mozilla source code.

Unless Pegorara means "most recent version" when he says "modern", there are indeed modern browsers for the classic Mac OS - all the way back to System 7.1 using iCab 2.9.8.

Mac vs. Windows Data

That said, Pegorara's article contains some interesting statistics.

According to IDC research, there are 514 million legal copies of Microsoft Windows in use around the world - and 21% of them (108 million) are using Windows 95, 98, or Me.

The same research claims 19 million Macintosh operating systems in use - about half of them Mac OS X and half the classic Mac OS (System 6.0 through Mac OS 9.2.2).

Both of these figures are lower than expected. According to Personal Computer Market Share: 1975-2004, 708 million Windows PCs were sold over the past five years, and there are definitely older PCs in use, so the IDC figure misses at least 200 million users who must be running Linux or pirated copies of Windows. (No wonder Microsoft wants to stem piracy - there must be a lot more pirated copies of Windows in use than legal copies of the Mac OS.)

IDC's Mac data is encouraging by comparison - 19 million Macs in use, but only 16.7 million sold over the past five years. We have to look at six years of sales data to account for 20.5 million Macs, but only four years of sales data to find 575 million PCs.

One more indication that Macs remain in use longer than Windows PCs.

Our site logs show that only about 10% of LEM visitors using Windows are using Win 95. 98, or Me, but then there are a lot of older PCs that aren't on the Internet. Two-thirds of Windows users visiting this site are running Windows XP, and Windows 2000 takes second place at 20%.

Our logs don't break down Mac users by OS version, but it's as true in the Mac world as in the PC world that most users seem to stick with the OS that shipped with their computer, upgrading the OS when they move to new hardware.

Apple estimates 25-30 million Macs in use worldwide, and the 23 million Macs made since 1997 are capable of running Mac OS X - but only 10-12 million of them shipped with OS X.

However you slice it, there are probably over 10 million Classic Mac OS computers in use around the world primarily because that's what they shipped with and their users see no reason to switch to OS X - or the hardware is so old that it's not supported by OS X.

If we use IDC's figures and assume a Linux installed base roughly equal to the Mac installed base, we have 514 + 19 + 19 = 552 million personal computers in use around the world. I'm sure that number is low - but a lot of Windows PCs are used as retail sales terminals and never get to do word processing or surf the Web.

Even going with Apple's higher number, 30 million Macs vs. 514 million legal Windows PCs (and assuming 30 million Linux installations), the Mac accounts for just 5.2% of computers in use. And with all of those pirated versions of Windows in use, the Mac installed base must come in well under the 5% mark.

The Future

Personal computer sales are on the rise. PC Market Share shows 129 million Windows PCs sold in 2002, 148 million in 2003, and 173 million on 2004. That's about 15% per year and points toward breaking the 200 million unit mark in 2005.

Apple's picture has been bleak. Apple shipped 4.5 million Macs in 1995, 4 million in 1996, and a low of 2.7 million in 1998. Yes, the company was beleaguered thanks to a huge jump in Windows PC sales (a 60% increase in 1996, due in no small part to Windows 95 being seen as the first version of Windows truly competitive with the Mac OS) and competition from licensed Mac clones.

Apple had a couple good years, 1999 and 2000, with sales of 3.8 million Macs each year, but 2001 saw an industrywide sales slump. (People catching their breath after all those Y2K purchases?) Macintosh sales were 3.1 million units in 2002 and 2003.

Last year Apple shipped 3.5 million Macs, a growth rate of 13% - lower than the Windows industry. Just to keep up, Apple needs to sell 4 million Macs this year.

With the Mac mini, I think Apple's going to exceed that number.

Forward Into the Past

That said, there are still going to be millions of Mac users and tens of millions of Windows users running "ancient" operating systems simply because they do everything the user needs to do. Some will fail each year, some will be retired, and a few will be upgraded, but good enough is good enough.

At Low End Mac, we appreciate modern hardware, software, and operating systems, but we also saupport those for whom "creaky operating systems" are good enough (see Mac OS 9 Compatibility, Upgrades, Hacks, and Resources and Best Web Browsers, Word Processors, and MP3 Players for the Classic Mac OS).

Hats off to those who know good enough when they have it.