Memoirs of an Old Geek V – Catharsis

Feb 24, 2020 | general blog

Peak Drama

In the early 90s, I was entirely sick of DOS/Windows. I was fed up with being limited to file names with only 8 characters (Windows 95 later solved that almost). I was sick of not being able to do anything with my computer without having to fight all the shortcomings of the soft- and hardware of this platform: 90% futzing around, 10% getting sh*t done. I was fed up with the IRQ-nonsense (which Windows 95 didn’t solve), I was at a point where having no computer at all seemed like a viable option.

◂ Memoirs of an Old Geek IV – Requiem in 486

Fiends Forever

And in early 1995. Microsoft’s supercallifragilisticexpialidocious mega-future-OS, that should’ve come out three years ago, just got relabeled to “the current year” to hide that fact. Microsoft promises for the umpteenth time that this time around their next OS would actually be usable – “as good as a Mac” they bragged, making it unmistakably clear that the golden standard for a productive, intuitive and well thought out system wasn’t anything from Microsoft.

Microsofts mental marketing gymnastics went something like this:

Forget everything you know about us. Never mind the disaster that DOS was, ignore the fact that we promised you for years that OS/2 will be the future and we left the system high and dry when it was eventually released. Erase all the painful memories of Windows 1, 2 and 3, also never mind us sabotaging other vendors’ superior DOS alternatives by making sure Windows didn’t run on them anymore. We’re Microsoft and despite having zero track record for developing and delivering a functional Operating System ourselves (even DOS wasn’t ours – we bought that from another dude, sorry), and despite us lying to you for 10 years non-stop: this time everything will be different!

And people fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.

Catharsis

And there they came, the PPCs. The first generation sounded promising and was so-so, but once we got to 603s and 604s, things started to look quite impressive and seriously competitive with the intel world. I scraped all my savings together and finally purchased my first Mac. Back then Macs were insanely expensive, so I was only able to afford an entry level model, a Performa 6300-ish (there were so many models and sub models I really can’t remember which one I had, it was the one with a CD-ROM, and a humble 75MHz PPC 603 processor, sold in Europe). Either way I finally got there! The moment, I had waited for the better part of my computer geek existence had finally arrived. I was the proud owner of a Mac, finally “the real thing”.

When Hardware is Ahead of the Software

The operating system (System 7.5.3 – I still have the CD, the German version) was still to large parts 68k code and thus not very zippy – almost all of it was running in emulation on the PPC – the whole OS (what a difference to the new M1 Macs that have a proper native OS to run on and many of the key apps already available in native code). However, even in emulation the PPC managed to be as fast as if not faster than the high-end 68k Macs we had at work.

Then there were tools like SpeedDoubler and RAM Doubler from Connectix. The former replaced many system calls and functions with PPC native code which improved system performance considerably. Particularly copying files was done multithreaded and with less excessive checking, and you could copy several files at the same time (sounds normal today, but back then this was really something special). RAM doubler could double or even triple your available RAM by compressing the unused data in your RAM more or less in realtime. Mac OS X decades later has this functionality now natively, but old school Macs had it first. Back then RAM was insanely expensive, so this piece of software was worth every penny.

Ye Olde Mac OS

Mac OS wasn’t called Mac OS before the advent of Mac OS 8, actually. Until then it was simply named “System {version number}”. And despite all the technical shortcomings of the old System (only cooperative multitasking, no protected memory), the Mac was still lightyears ahead of the competition in usability, consistency and transparency of the system. The stability wasn’t remotely as bad as all the haters made it out to be. I was productively using it for work every day, and downtime was never a big a problem.

Actually it seemed that the BSOD, plug & play never working and general problems on the oh so superior Windows 95 was a much more rampant to the amusement of Mac users. That was partially due to the fact that Mac developers knew they could bring down the whole system if their app didn’t behave, so they were quite conscious about it, while Win 95 developers thought “well, we’ve got rudimentary memory protection, sort of, now we don’t have to worry about stability of our apps anymore” and things got from bad to worse.

Some other things I learned to appreciate…

…that weren’t common on other operating systems at the time

  • I could finally use any character in file names (except for the colon)
  • No file extensions needed at the end of file names. Mac OS not only knew what file type every file was, but it also had a creator type, so you could have a JPEG created by GraphicConverter and one created with Photoshop and each one would open with its creator app by doubleclicking on it – like magic!
  • Giving a file, folder, or even hard drive a new icon was a matter of copy and pasting an image (and still works the same on macOS 12)
  • Hardware is automatically recognised, usually without any drivers whatsoever (all Macs had SCSI interfaces for external scanners and hard drives). But graphic cards, too, would just work after plugging them in thanks to Open Firmware.
  • Macs did support multiple displays without drivers or any fancy setup. Pure plug & play long before Windows 95 (and on the Mac it actually worked)
  • Managing your fonts was straight-forward and easy. And printing documents was true WYSIWYG.
  • Drag & drop worked everywhere. Even in the weirdest places.
  • Copy & Paste worked everywhere and for any kind of data, not only text.
  • Almost all apps even from different vendors are using the same keyboard shortcuts and key modifiers for the same or similar actions. Even to this day there’s little consistency on Windows for keyboard shortcuts, what little consistency there is was basically just imitated from the Mac (ctrl-c, ctrl-x, ctrl-v came from the shortcuts ⌘+C, ⌘+X, ⌘+V established by the Apple Lisa and later the Macintosh)
    • The sign of a Mac power-user is: left hand on the keyboard, right hand on the mouse. You do everything that can be done with a keyboard shortcut (ingeniously most can be done with the left hand) – it’s way faster. Don’t close windows with the mouse, just hit ⌘+W. To this day many Mac users aren’t aware of the plethora of keyboard shortcuts and keyboard modifiers throughout the system and it makes a huge difference in productivity/efficiency, and separates the n00bs from the pros.

And it was consistent. If something worked in case A, you could bet it would work the same way in case B, too. But all of these bragging rights weren’t the point…

The point was that you could finally get stuff done. And stuff I did get done do. I created, achieved and accomplished things. No futzing required. No swearing either. I tried things I never dared to tackle before, because they would have been too bothersome or close to impossible on DOS/Widows.

Need for Speed

But eventually despite its name the Performa wasn’t such a great peformer, and so when my Dad needed a little machine to do his bookkeeping I sold it to him after just one year, and then I upgraded to a PowerMac 7600 with a PPC604/132MHz.

Some of My Nostalgic Moments on the Mac

  • First digitally edited video
    Created with Avid Videoshop (bundled with the PowerMac 7600)
  • My first multimedia presentation
    With MacroMind Director. Yes, that’s not a typo, the company was later renamed to Macromedia.
  • Games!
    Duke Nukem, DOOM II, Shadow Warrior, Carmageddon I & II, Quake I, II, Arena, Unreal, Marathon, Oni, Mac MAME, Virtual Game Station (Sony PlayStation Emulator for the Mac – don’t forget the PlayStation was using a PPC back then!) and many, many more
  • Lots of Software
    Aldus PageMaker, Quark XPress, Avid Videoshop, HyperCard, Allegiant SuperCard, Macromind Director, Max UAE Amiga Emulator, Power64 C64 Emulator (yeah, now we’re getting into re-entrant nostalgy!), Kaleidoscope (you could customise the appearance of your Mac to excessive levels with that), all the stuff from Adobe, back when they weren’t entirely evil yet (Photoshop was Mac only until version 3, I believe). OpenDoc (was so ahead of its time), CyberDog (Apple’s first, very intriguing web browser based on OpenDoc) and lots more.

You’d think I would’ve lived happily ever after, yet, my soul wouldn’t come to rest. For one part I was just about to move to Japan, and with the surge of the Internet I was tempted to try out more, to want more, and so I ventured into UN*X, FOSS and last but not least BeOS, but that’s another story for another day.

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