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OS 9, Mine, All Mine

by Giles Turnbull
07/23/2004

Those of us who use it all the time, know very well the benefits of Mac OS X. Arguably, it's the best commercial, consumer-oriented Unix offshoot around. And it comes with some of the most exciting, reliable, and visually stunning hardware money can buy.

People must be mad to cling on to OS 9, right? They're missing out on all the fun stuff -- hacking scripts in the Terminal, churning out tunes in GarageBand, Safari surfing, and so on. There are so many great tools built in to OS X, and so much more available from third parties, that OS 9 and its predecessors just don't cut it any more.

Well, not quite. Lots of people are using old systems and old software. Some are quite happy with their existing setup; others have made a deliberate effort not to follow the upgrade path.

Why stick with the old system? What are the benefits? I decided to contact some OS 9 users and ask them straight out.

On the way I encountered some charming and witty computer users. I'd like to say thanks to them right from the start; without their cheerful willingness to discuss their deepest-held computing beliefs, this article would have been a whole lot shorter.

"It serves my needs"

Russ Bravo, editor of the Christian Herald and OS 9 fan
Russ Bravo, editor of the Christian Herald and OS 9 fan.

Russ Bravo edits the Christian Herald, a weekly newspaper for the evangelical Christian community in the UK. At work he uses an eMac running Panther, but at home he still runs OS 9.1 on an iMac, and OS 8.6 on his iBook.

"The reason I use OS 9.1 on my iMac at home is that it serves my needs perfectly well, and I can't afford a copy of Panther to run on it at the moment," he says.

"I use 8.6 on my iBook basically because a) it means I can use one or two things like retro digital cameras (a JamCam and a QuickTake) that don't seem to like any OS that is more up-to-date than 8.6, and b) because I mainly use the iBook for word processing and a little bit of web browsing, rather than graphics-intensive (the photo files on my retro cameras are not huge). I have no real need for anything later than 8.6."

Russ doesn't find stability a big problem. Most of the time, he's only running one or two programs at once.

"I belong to a number of mailing lists where I go for advice, buying and selling bits, and so on, and I also consult LowEndMac regularly. I wouldn't expect much support from Apple as my machines age, although I do think they should release older OS systems as freeware, rather than trying to charge people still for anything newer than 7.5.

"It might pay Apple to see that since their machines are durable and many people are more attached to them than beige PC boxes (even the beige Apple boxes!), that a little more ongoing support for their heritage models might not go amiss. But I guess it doesn't do much for the bottom line."

Russ thinks that anyone buying a computer should consider their needs before they buy. He encourages people with simple requirements to buy a simple computer.

"I am a Mac evangelist and push them heavily to anyone interested in computers, particularly PC users fed up with viruses and Windows bloatware. I collect old Macs and currently have a Mac Classic, an SE/30, a 5300 PowerBook, a 9600/350, a "black Mac TV" 5500/275, a couple of 7300s, and an LC475.

"What I recommend to people would very much depend on what their needs are -- for someone wanting to surf the Net, do some basic word processing, and a bit of image storage, I would recommend a secondhand iMac, which can be picked up for £100-200 on eBay these days. For more high-powered users, I'd recommend an eMac or similar running Panther. For families with young kids who want to pick up computer basics, I'd recommend an old Power Mac or Performa. Horses for courses, really.

"If the machine does what you need from it, then cost, convenience, usability, and space will be bigger factors than which OS."

"Mac OS is the clear winner"

Meet Ken Hagler, a Frontier programmer from Los Angeles.

And here, meet his desktop:

Ken Hagler's Mac OS desktop
Ken Hagler's Mac OS desktop.

Since his work is all about cross-platform programming, Ken uses all kinds of operating systems on a daily basis. Having that sort of knowledge of Windows and Mac operating systems, old and new, is bound to leave someone with opinions.

And as far as Ken is concerned, the old Mac OS wins hands-down.

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He says: "I dislike Apple in its current form (which is really just NeXT, Inc. in Apple clothing), and like the Mac OS (which I've been using since 1984), but that's not why I still use it.

"I use the Mac OS because it's the best desktop operating system around. If at some point another OS surpasses it, I'll switch. Eventually I'll have to switch anyway, as my Mac OS computers will eventually give out."

At work, Ken uses a Windows XP box and a Mac running OS X 10.3.4. At home, he has another Windows machine ("I use it mostly for games") and his old Mac system.

Perhaps unusually, in Ken's experience OS X has been less stable than the older Mac OS. This has been one of the main reasons for his decision not to upgrade.

"I've had very few stability problems with the Mac OS, while OS X has been very unstable. Windows XP is actually the best of the three for stability.

"I used to make jokes about how Windows troubleshooting was 'reinstall Windows,' but in fact I've never needed to do that on either my home or work PC, whereas I've 'reinstalled windows' three or four times on my OS X build machine.

"I find that OS X doesn't usually crash per se, it just gets into a state where things don't work quite right. For example, a build will suddenly start to fail for no apparent reason, then I restart the build machine and the problem disappears.

"It's also very fragile -- kernel panics and application crashes are quite likely to produce hard-drive corruption or irreparable damage to system files. Based on what my PC-centric co-workers have told me, OS X is comparable to Windows 98 in its lack of stability.

"On those rare occasions when one of my Mac OS systems crashes, I just restart and continue working. I run Norton Disk Doctor as a precaution, but I can't even remember the last time a Mac OS crash resulted in any kind of damage."

Surely some of the exciting applications and system tools available on OS X are tempting to a programmer?

"I never find myself wishing I could use an OS X-only app. There aren't many such apps, and the ones that might interest me are inferior to apps that exist on other platforms. For example, Safari is inferior to Firefox, and OmniOutliner is inferior to MORE.

"I do often find myself wishing that there were an OS X version of a Windows app (such as Groove or Skype), as most of the people I know outside work use OS X."

So is Ken's choice just a case of sticking-with-what-works?

"Yes, definitely. I have Mac OS, OS X, and Win XP systems side-by-side in my cubicle here at work, so every day I'm exposed to a practical comparison of which OS works best. The Mac OS is the clear winner."

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