Washington Apple Pi

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Cliff Diving: Moving to Mac OS X

© 2002 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

In April, the Pi Webmaster received an impassioned, well-written letter on problems related to moving to Mac OS X. The Webmaster was intrigued with the language (much better written than most E-mail letters), but puzzled by the context (what prompted the letter?), and so decided to investigate. It is an interesting tale, full of love and passion, seeming betrayal, rejection and reconciliation. Can movie rights be far behind?

While waiting for the movie deal, consider the sport of -- cliff diving. Cliff diving got its big start in the 1950s when some Hollywood movies were filmed in Acapulco, Mexico, and included footage of young boys diving off the La Quebrada cliffs into the Pacific Ocean. For a few pesos, poor youngsters would fling themselves from the cliff, trusting to skill and luck that they wouldn't be smashed on the rocks below. It was a heck of a way to make a living.

And, for many, leaving behind Mac OS 8 or 9 and venturing into the world of Mac OS X is much like cliff diving. The comfortable Macintosh interface, developed in fits and starts over almost 20 years, is left behind, and the user finds themselves hurtling down the cliff, faster and faster, ready to either splash into Aqua (the Mac OS X interface) or smash, period. On the way down, some users have second thoughts -- but gravity is implacable. The speed and momentum of the plunge increases with every second.

Here is the letter. While this is being published with the permission of the author, it has been edited to preserve anonymity. The writer even gave it a title:

Just one of those things

My love affair with the Mac began on a fine Fall day in 1984 when I got a call from the Apple Pi office that my new 128K Macintosh had arrived. I broke every speed law from Baltimore to DC driving my VW Rabbit down to Bethesda to pick up that wonderful white box. I joined the Pi after reading that they were doing a group purchase and I very much wanted to be part of the brave new world of computer graphics. I had seen IBM PCs become paperweights, I had discovered how much work it was to make a red square move an inch across the screen in BASIC, and I helped Control Data port mainframe educational programs over to TI (Texas Instruments) boxes. I was a humble graphic designer, not a programmer, and I said I'd buy a computer when I could take it out of the box and be doing something useful within a half hour. The Mac fulfilled that promise, and more, for 18 years.

Until three weeks ago. I had a perfectly fine G3 tower, running Mac OS 9.2, the last of a long line of Macs that had served me well and provided an income over many years. I had two video boards, twin 17 inch monitors, auxiliary hard drives, a scanner, laser and inkjet printers, a CD burner and lots of useful software. But I read articles in MacAddict and in the Pi Journal exhorting me to get with the new future of the Mac and upgrade to Mac OS X. So I prudently waited until the third revision of the OS then took the plunge.

There's no better word to describe the past three weeks. First, it was the inability of the software to recognize my hard drive as valid for upgrade. Then it stalled while endlessly "checking disk." Numerous calls [were made] to Apple where nice folks with Canadian accents tried everything, then referred me to product specialists, also nice, who urged me to tear my system apart, rebuild everything and call them back. Nothing worked, days went by...

I don't remember which dark hour everything snapped and I decided maybe everyone was right, I just needed a whole new computer (actually, it was when some senior tech guy at Apple said, yes, we support putting Mac OS X on a G3, but I have one at home, and I really don't think you'll be happy even if you can get it to work). So, in total frustration, I called MacConnection and ordered a new G4, along with USB, ADB and SCSI cards. Trying hard to summon the old excitement when a new Mac showed up, I unpacked the box and plugged everything in. Mostly it worked. Except it needed endless software updates and expensive upgrades. More hours on Web sites, e-mails to tech support people and careful plugging and unplugging boards, cables, etc. Fortunately, I had backed everything up to CDs because I continually had to go find some file that was needed.

Then there's the whole essential mystery of Mac OS X. Does anyone really prepare you for the fact you'll have two (and 3 if you count Classic) operating systems on your computer? With duplicate filenames, folders and other confusing inconsistencies? How long should it take for you to search fruitlessly for the file you just created on multiple desktops? Or load the two versions of software you had to buy to replace the perfectly functioning earlier single version?

OK, fine. Bite the bullet as Pat F[auquet, Washington Apple Pi Tutorial Coordinator and Mac Guru] would say, spend the hours tweaking, reading obscure tech updates, adjusting to new behaviors; it will all lead to a better world. So today, I was that close. Yes, I was still waiting for the word on how to get the scanning software to work, but I had got Norton Utilities to install in Mac OS 9 (better read the FAQs on how long you have to wait if you've got a SuperDrive). So, after once again switching back and forth between the two OS, I restart and, poof! a kernal panic (whatever that is). Well, another two hours with tech support, another tear apart the computer (thank God it's not the skin lacerating 8500) session and finally, during the last futile attempt to get it to mount, the SOB has the nerve to TRY AND SELL ME AN APPLECARE EXTENDED SERVICE CONTRACT! I mentioned that this might not be the best time to discuss this and he quickly beat the hasty, and by now very familiar, retreat into calling on the product specialist. I noticed that he switched on the soothing Loreena McKennet music while he went off to seek counsel. He returned and briskly told me to take it to an authorized dealer for service.

So here I am typing this on my old G3 which has been resurrected from backup CDs. Tomorrow I take the new G4 SilverSled in for repair and ruefully curse the day I set out loyally to do the Apple thing. The love affair is finally over. I really wanted to put one of those decals on my car. Sigh, just another pretty inter face.

Here is a user -- an informed, devout Macintosh user -- who decided to go cliff diving. While they had read up on Mac OS X, they had not, unfortunately, read up on cliff diving itself. Cliff divers tend to be dedicated, no-nonsense athletes, and when they go cliff diving, they cast off everything that isn't directly required. This usually means "leave behind everything but a skimpy swimsuit and a look of intense concentration." Our Mac user, on the other hand, tried to take with them everything they had acquired in almost 20 years of Mac use.

Let's examine the individual problems encountered:

  • They decided to install Mac OS X on a beige G3. Apple says you can do so, and thousands of people haven't had any problems at all aside from performance issues ("It isn't as fast as my brother's iMac!").
  • They had two video boards, and two 17 inch monitors. Mac OS X does support multiple video cards, with reservations; it is a good idea to see if the manufacturer of the additional video board has written a driver for Mac OS X.
  • They had "auxiliary hard drives." Mac OS X supports the internal drives that came built-in to a G3, but as for all the things that someone may have added later -- these are more problematic. "Problematic" is a technical term that means "It might work, but don't be surprised if it doesn't."
  • They had a scanner, probably a SCSI scanner. Mac OS X doesn't support SCSI scanners. In fact, scanner support in general, at this writing, is fairly modest. If the manufacturer hasn't written a driver that not only supports the scanner, but also supports the method by which you have attached the scanner, you may be out of luck.
  • They had a laser printer and an inkjet printer. Mac OS X has excellent support for PostScript laser printers; inkjet printer support is up to the manufacturer of the inkjet, and ranges from excellent to no support at all.
  • They had a CD-ROM burner. Mac OS X supports burning CD-ROMs right out of the box -- assuming you have an internal, Apple-supplied CD-RW drive. There is limited support for other, third-party CD-ROM burners.

Our intrepid cliff diver didn't even reach the water on their first attempt. They took the leap, but got tangled in the vegetation hanging off the cliff. So they decided -- and it wasn't a bad idea at all -- to go out and buy a new cliff, a new Power Mac G4. But note that they also decided to drag some of the vegetation along with them: "I called MacConnection and ordered a new G4, along with USB, ADB and SCSI cards." What were the USB, ADB and SCSI cards for? Why, for adding all those (possibly incompatible) old peripherals formerly attached to the beige G3. The new cliff was soon as entangled in vegetation as the old one. It isn't clear if they ever tried to just jump off the cliff without dragging everything with them.

Still more problems were encountered:

  • They needed "endless" software updates and upgrades. This isn't Mac OS X specific, and happens any time you jump several generations of technology at once.
  • They encountered tech support people with Canadian accents. Canadian accents are cool, so we'll assume this isn't a problem, either.
  • They were confused by the "two (and 3 if you count Classic) operating systems" on their computer. Many long-time Mac users have this problem, but new Mac users don't. We'll see why in a moment.
  • They were incensed when an "SOB" (good call) tried to sell them an AppleCare extended service contract, in the middle of a tech support call. This is definitely a poor move, but it doesn't really have anything to do with Mac OS X.

Setting aside Canadian accents and tech support SOBs, and the cost and bother of updating applications, the most serious issue is the disorientation caused by "two (and 3 if you count Classic) operating systems" on one computer. When you are operating a Macintosh under Mac OS X and double-click on the hard drive icon, you'll see several folders:

Applications (Mac OS 9)
System Folder

For long-time Mac users, it isn't obvious what these folders are for, or where things should be put. Historically, Mac users were free to create folders at will, anywhere and everywhere, for any purpose or for no purpose at all, and fill them with random collections of files. Mac OS X, obviously, is different, but Apple's very pretty but very brief documentation doesn't really provide much in the way of clues as to how all of this is supposed to work.

Oddly enough, brand-new Mac users have no problems at all. They see that the Applications folder is for storing programs, and that the Documents folder will hold any documents that they produce. If they click on the Home button in the Finder, they'll be taken to their own folder in the Users folder, where there are ready-made places to put movies, documents, music, pictures and Web sites. Three folders, the Library folder, Desktop folder and Public folder, require a bit more explanation, but on the whole, new users have no problems at all keeping track of where they are and of where things need to go. They ignore the Mac OS 9 System Folder and Applications (Mac OS 9) folders completely, since they have no investment in old software and no need to use them.

Mac users who have used Mac OS 9.1, which also has separate folders for Applications and Documents, have relatively little trouble with Mac OS X. Like the new Mac users, they soon learn that everything works if you put your own creations in the Documents folder, your programs in the Applications folder, and clutter the desktop with whatever projects you are working on.

In fact, the easiest way to use Mac OS X is to never bother opening the hard drive icon. The Finder Toolbar has buttons for the Applications folder, and unless you go out of your way to change things, most applications will automatically store things in your user Documents folder. Stubborn Mac fanactics (like this writer) tend to override this and store things on the Desktop until they are finished, but that's personal taste.

In short: the key to using Mac OS X is to recognize that it really is new and different, and don't try to force it to work like Mac OS 7.5, or 8.6, or even 9.1. It is true that you have a choice of three different "environments" for working: Mac OS X alone, Macintosh Classic operating within Mac OS X, or Mac OS 9.2 alone. Given that Steve Jobs has officially declared Mac OS 9 to be "dead," the best course of action -- and this is subject to limitations brought on by practicality and economics -- is to do as much as possible purely within a Mac OS X environment, and to recognize that Mac Classic -- and Mac OS 9 itself -- are ephemeral, soon to fade away like snowmen in the summer.

After watching people cope with Mac OS X for more than a year, "old pros" that have adopted Mac OS X fall into three main groups:

  • Pleased and productive. This group has cast off, as much as possible, all ties to the pre-Mac OS X universe, and works virtually all the time using Mac OS X and Mac OS X-based applications and peripherals.
  • Pleased but occasionally goes slumming. This group works mostly in Mac OS X, but will occasionally boot Mac OS 9 (not Classic within Mac OS X) to work on a project that has no Mac OS X equivalent, such as creating PageMaker documents, or use a peripheral that doesn't work with Mac OS X. With Adobe's recent release of Mac OS X-native Photoshop 7.0, this group is shrinking rapidly into the previous group.
  • Confused and often frustrated. This group tries to use Mac OS X as if it were Mac OS 9 (or earlier), and is reluctant to give up old programs, old peripherals, and old habits.

Into the "confused" group we can add a different Pi member, also anonymous, who purchased a Macintosh II ($6,000) with 8 megabytes of RAM ($8,000), a 13" RGB monitor ($1,000) and a Hewlett-Packard color scanner ($1,800) in 1987 (total cost: $16,800). This individual recently upgraded to a Power Mac G4/800 with a billion bytes of RAM and a 20" monitor, for a total cost of around $2500. They have no interest in their old Mac ("it's collecting dust in the junk room") but were enraged that they couldn't use their $1,800 scanner with their new Mac using Mac OS X. After a lengthy session of venting, they reluctantly admitted they could buy a far better scanner for $200 that would work with Mac OS X.

Also in the "confused" group we can add yet another Pi member who insisted on running a Mac OS 8-based spelling checker to check documents in Mac OS X's spiffy Mail program. This caused constant, severe problems, as the spell checker wasn't even fully compatible with Mac OS 9 (or Classic), much less Mac OS X. They were so used to using the spell checker for E-mail that they'd completely overlooked the fact that Mail includes a fully-functional, fully interactive spell checker.

If you are getting the impression that the only way to use Mac OS X is to leave everything else behind, that isn't supposed to be the message. If you've sunk a lot of money into your old system, software and peripherals, leave them as-is; you can still use them just fine -- when using Mac OS 9. But when you use Mac OS X, don't let your "sunk cost" in older technology sink your ability to learn, use, and appreciate Mac OS X. Use Mac OS X the way it was supposed to be used -- without the old peripherals and software -- and see what you can do.

The letter writer followed up with another message. Here are some excerpts:

Thanks for your follow up (and your patience). A day's passage reveals many things. The best I can say about my letter to you was that it was impassioned... obviously written in a state of frustration and disillusionment. I don't seriously think I had any expectation of it being printed; it was just a sense of needing to share my experience with someone who must be the focal point of many different points of view on things Apple. After all, I've been a Mac believer for 18 years (and faced down three successive IT departments trying to kill me off) and my negative feelings were pretty strong.

However, I really want to take you up on your offer to tell me what I did "wrong" (actually, I think there's no wrong, you just go with the computer or you go against the computer). I could write a long list of lessons learned already myself, the biggest one being Do Your Homework. I should have read all the messages in MacInTouch, MacOSX Hints, the Mac OS X site and Knowledgebase on Apple before even thinking about upgrading. Of course, I didn't know about all these sources when the troubles began. Even there, I haven't heard anyone caution about the limitations or consequences of Mac OS X on a G3. But hindsight is 20-20.

I know there are two types of people trying to update to OSX. There are people who know computers inside out and would read my comments and think "what an idiot." And there are those who may know less than me (it's possible) and might be facing their own digital hell. I'd sure like to make it easier for them.

The user makes several good points, though some cautions are in order. First, many of the Mac Web "news" sites tend to publish inaccurate information. The usual sequence: someone has a problem, they write to the news site explaining what they think happened, and visitors read that there is some flaw or bug or incompatibility with Mac OS X. In reality, many of these "flaws, bugs, and incompatibilities" occur because the report was made by someone who overreacted, or didn't correctly observe what had happened, or misrepresented what had happen. To cite one semi-infamous example, one Mac news site reported that a "serious bug" in Mac OS X was causing Word v.X documents to disappear. After some investigation, it became clear there was no such bug; the documents were being automatically saved in the user's Documents folder -- but the user had never looked in the folder. They'd looked everywhere else, and reinstalled Mac OS X and Microsoft Office v.X several times, and managed to start a controversy -- for no reason at all. When reading Web "news" sites, keep in mind the Latin injunction: Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur.*

Second, "Do Your Homework" may be good advice but "Leave behind the baggage" might be even better. Straight out of the box, with no extra software at all, a Mac running Mac OS X is far more flexible and powerful than any previous Mac operating system. TextEdit, for example, may be "just a text editor," but it supports speech synthesis, has a spell checker, and can produce superbly formatted documents that can incorporate movies, sound and graphics; only the most recent word processors can come close to its power and flexibility. Mail is probably a better E-mail client than most people have ever used before. Image Capture, iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes and Preview can do things you never dreamed of in that "old" operating system. So instead of "doing your homework" to try to figure out how to get the "old stuff" to work, learn what you can do with the new stuff. The "old stuff" probably won't look that critical or interesting.

Finally, a word about idiocy. "There are people who know computers inside out and would read my comments and think 'what an idiot.'" Yes, there are such people. But keep in mind the words of Hyman Rickover, who noted that most people "are the product of unskilled labor."

What ever happened to cliff diving, anyway? After getting exposed to the world through Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s, ABC's "Wide World of Sports" actually moved a bit outside of the US to Mexico and filmed some of the competitions. Now the local cliff divers have organized themselves into the Clavadistas Profesionales de la Quebrada. A separate professional organization hosts cliff diving competitions all over the world, including land-locked countries, such as Austria. Cliff diving isn't what it used to be.

And neither is Mac OS.

* Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur: Whatever is said in Latin sounds profound. But, of course, sounding profound doesn't make it profound.