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Return to innocence: Classic Mac OS on a Mac Plus emulator in any web browser

Sections: Internet / Websites, Mac Software, Originals

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Do you ever miss the days of innocence (at least in terms of computers)? I don’t think the Mac ever seemed more magical than it did the first time I booted up System 6, the version of the Mac OS that came installed on that my first Mac (a Platinum Mac Plus I bought used in 1992). Moving over from a text-only machine to the Mac’s graphical user interface was a revelation, and notwithstanding its limitations by today’s standards, in context System 6 remains, in many respects, my favorite Mac operating system version ever.

Mac os classic

Another thing I liked about System 6 was that it came with real, hard copy documentation. Here’s the 274 page operating manual Apple shipped with computers running System 6, in addition to a 101 page manual for the Mac itself. Those were the days!

Mac os classic manual

I loved the look of System 6, which was released in 1988 and succeeded by System 7 in 1991. I later did install System 7 on a separate partition of the Plus’s little (at least in capacity—it was physically huge) 20 megabyte(!) external hard drive for better Internet support, but I also kept speedy, pretty (to my sense of aesthetics anyway) System 6.8.0 Installed on the computer’s main boot volume for speed and slickness doing production work. I don’t think any subsequent OS X version has appealed to me aesthetically as much as System 6 did, although I’ve of course appreciated the functionality advances in later versions of the Classic Mac OS and OS X, like preemptive multitasking in the latter.

Mac os classic

System 6 is not very useful nowadays for anything but the most rudimentary computing tasks on antique hardware, and it never had more than vestigial Internet support, but I’ve fantasized about how great it would be if Apple were offer a System 6-look UI skin for OS X.

If you want to indulge nostalgia for those halcyon days, or are too young to remember them but would like to check out what the primitive Classic Mac OS that I’m babbling about was actually like, you can now get a taste using a Web browser running on most OS platforms, including OS X, iOS, Android, Windows, or Linux.

PCE.js—a hack by James Friend—emulates classic computers in a browser, including a cut-down version for mobile devices running the even earlier Mac OS System 1.1 and Finder 1.1g. It’s not fast, and takes quite a while to load, but it does give you an idea of what Mac computing was like in the early days—an important qualification being that the emulator is slow, and Mac Systems 1 through 6 running on those early Macs were anything but sluggish. Friend suggests that if, for example, you’re having trouble double-clicking on the emulator, try slowing down your taps to about one per second.

classic mac os

The PCE.js demo emulates a Mac Plus, and includes a bunch of abandonware early days applications such as MacPaint, Microsoft Word (before there was a Windows version!), BBEdit Lite, MacDraw, and several primitive computer games to check out.

classic mac os

Explaining the rationale behind his emulator project, Friend says he feels very strongly about the importance of learning from the past—not making the same mistakes again and again due to a lack of historical perspective. He asks rhetorically why some of today’s “solutions” feel lame in comparison to these prototypes from several decades ago? If anything, he says, it seems like we’ve gone backwards, contending that lots of great thinking and design can be found in old systems. “The original Macintosh, with influence from the Xerox Alto, solved lots of user interface issues which people are still failing to think about today,” Friend notes. “The awesome usability and simplicity of the original Mac is something which should be available as a working, interactive demo to the newest generation of designers, makers and creators.”

I agree. As I noted above, over the past decade or so, I’ve mused from time to time about how delightful it would be if Apple were to develop a Mac System 6-style user interface “skin” for OS X. I usually get the impression, if I get any reaction at all, that I’m not being taken seriously regarding this fancy, but I am serious. After all, the OS X GUI appearance themes are shells that operate atop OS X’s UNIX underpinnings, and there would be no insurmountable technical obstacle to creating a stripped-down, low hardware overhead, and attractively minimalist GUI that looked like System 6, with Susan Kare’s wonderful, classic icon designs.

Another thing that would be really cool is a System 6 “skin” for the iOS. System 6 was even more cleanly minimalist than iOS 7, and my iPad’s panel is nearly the same size (albeit slightly bigger, with much higher resolution, and color), as my old Mac Plus’s monitor. In some respects, using the iPad reminds me a bit of what System 6 computing was like. For example, lame “multitasking,” known as Multifinder in System 6, although even that would be an improvement over what passes for multitasking in the iOS.

classic mac os

Anyway, check out James Friend’s emulators, if only for a nostalgia-wallow, or to see what all the fuss was about.

You can find them here at jamesfriend.com.au.

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