Notes

Patching the Newton

Before the Internet took off, critical software patches were handled by hand. Sometimes that meant cruising around Boston in a crappy rental car, and stopping at every electronics store just hours before the big launch.

Landon Dyer, who did the driving, explains:

It’s August, 1993, the day before Apple’s Newton MessagePad goes on sale, and overnight we’ve heard that some people who managed to get units ahead of time are having trouble with them, and someone heard that someone said they thought they had a unit whose software wasn’t the right version. There’s a little uncertainty. Since we shipped the final Newton ROM in June we’ve spent all summer fixing bugs and making patches. The patches are applied in the factory, toward the end of the production line, and they fix critical bugs. If the units don’t have these fixes, the Newt won’t work very well.

As the morning progresses it becomes clear that some number of the Newtons that are already at stores and about to be sold either didn’t get patched at the factory, or (worse) are losing their patches in transit. So here I am, cruising around Boston in a crappy rental car, fumbling with maps and getting lost on streets that are not laid out in a grid. It’s also about 90 degrees and humid, reminding me of why I don’t live on the east coast any more.

In contrast today's game consoles can be updated instantly over the Internet, but require hours of updates straight-out-of-the-box.

Yosemite’s FileVault 2 Recovery Options

Rich Trouton, on Yosemite’s new FileVault 2 pre-boot recovery options:

One of the changes that Apple has introduced with Yosemite is a more straightforward way to recover from login problems at the FileVault 2 pre-boot login screen.

When a FileVault 2-encrypted Mac sits for more than a minute with an account selected at the FileVault 2 pre-boot login screen, a message like the one below should appear:

If you’re having a problem entering your password, press and hold the power button on your Mac to shut it down. Then press it again to start it up in the Recovery OS.

I never store my FileVault recovery key with Apple, but tt is good to see Apple is providing users with a place to enter their Recovery Key should FileVault stop working.

Why Amazon Built the Fire Phone

Austin Carr's Fast Company piece "The Real Story Behind Jeff Bezos's Fire Phone Debacle And What It Means For Amazon's Future" shows us why Amazon built the Fire Phone.

The project, code-named "Tyto" for a genus of owl, got rolling in 2010, roughly around the time Apple launched the iPhone 4. There were cogent reasons for Amazon to want a phone of its own. As the world goes mobile, an Amazon phone would provide a more direct link to its users. Today, customers often come to Amazon via iPhones or Android devices. Not controlling the hardware can create problems. For instance, you can’t buy e-books through the Kindle app on your iPhone because Apple takes 30% of app-driven sales—a cut that would hurt Amazon’s already razor-thin margin.

Unfortunately for Amazon…

Bezos knew that any Amazon phone would be immediately greeted with one question: Why should anyone buy an Amazon device instead of an iPhone? That’s why his mandate to the team was simple and bold from the very start: Let’s wow customers with something big and distinctive.

John Gruber:

The problem with the Fire Phone is that it’s a shitty phone. That’s it. If Amazon had made a phone with compelling features — an iPhone-caliber phone — it would have done just fine, and Amazon’s brand would have grown. If you set out to make a premium quality phone, you have to deliver a premium quality phone.

I disagree with John. The Fire Phone is not a "shitty phone," but it is a shitty phone at $650. If Amazon had kept with its previous strategy of making well-constructed, low-price products, the Fire Phone could have turned out to be a success.

I don't think Amazon is capable of making an "iPhone-caliber phone," the same way I don't think Apple is capable of making a online "everything store" that competes on price. You have to stick with what you know.

Pascal Development in Lisa Workshop

I have never seen an operating Apple Lisa in my lifetime, but if I was was developing for one today, this is how I would do it.

Tonight’s project: learn how to write code that runs on Apple’s LisaOS. In this piece, I am using Lisa Office System 3.1, with Workshop 3.0.

As you can imagine, there hasn’t been any kind of documentation on this in decades, so it was all learned through painful trial and error, and scouring old manuals for information. Fun!

NetBoot PowerPC & Intel Macs

NetBoot

I got my first real job as a System Administrator NetBooting candy-colored iMacs, Power Mac G4 Cubes, and Power Mac G5s between semesters, and sometimes between morning and afternoon classes. You might say Mike Bombich, the creator of NetRestore, got me my first job at Apple, and setup my future career supporting Macs at MIT. Today you can still NetBoot most macs from a Mavericks Server.

Here are some reasons why:
  • You regularly need an easy, fast, way of installing OS X on multiple machines. NetBoot ALL the things!
  • You may not have a functional disc drive anymore (it happens!)
  • Installing over ethernet is much faster than from the CD-ROM drives in older Macs
  • It works over WiFi on modern Macs
  • You do custom kernel or OS development, and need a faster way of booting PPC or x86 Macs
  • Gigabit ethernet is quite likely faster than any SSD you could install in an older Mac
It is a shame Mac OS X 10.0, 10.1, and even Mac OS 9 NetBoot images are also ‘supported’ in theory, however the OSes themselves will not actually mount the OS over the network (presumably due to changes in OS X, AppleTalk, AFP.

If you asked me ten years ago, I never would have guessed we would all be using the Internet to NetBoot and restore our Macs in the future.

Dropbox Drops PowerPC

Dropbox

Last week Dropbox announced they were pulling support Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, and Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, effective May 18th 2015.

The Dropbox desktop application will no longer support OS X versions 10.4 (Tiger) and 10.5 (Leopard) starting on May 18th of 2015. On that date, users running these versions of OS X will be signed out and will be unable to sign in or sync using the desktop application on those computers. Existing files and folders inside the Dropbox folder will remain unchanged and will stop syncing through the desktop application.

Existing and new files can be always accessed from the Dropbox website, mobile devices, and other compatible computers.

In the words of Grant Hutchinson Dropbox has long been the cloud-based standard for keeping my Macs in sync; especially PowerPC macs that don't support iCloud, OneDrive or any other modern file syncing service. I am not alone. A petition has been signed on Change.org to keep Dropbox support for Mac OS X 10.4 and 10.5.

There are thousands of users and tens of thousands of legacy Macs that need Dropbox to continue to thrive to allow for a simple seamless connection across all Mac OS X and other devices. The sharing features between other users’ clients are also priceless. If keeping that alive takes a small investment on behalf of this community, I can assure you that you have our support. We are a very dedicated bunch, and by continuing to keep our PowerPC equipment synced up, Dropbox will surely benefit from our continued support, both as a product advocate and business partner.

I have not supported Dropbox financially in some time. (MIT provides me with all of the Dropbox space I could ever want.) But if it means keeping my older Macs in sync, I would gladly pay for Dropbox again.

Carbon Saved Apple

Steven Throughton Smith did the impossible. He wrote an application that runs in every Mac OS from System 1.0 to OS X Yosemite, and he did it using Carbon.

The more I dug into it, the more I came to the conclusion that Carbon was probably one of the most important things Apple did in building OS X. Even today it provides source compatibility for a huge chunk of the classic Mac OS software base. It kept the big companies from ditching Apple outright when they were needed the most, and gave them a huge runway - 16 years to port perhaps millions of lines of code to OS X while still being able to iterate and improve without spending thousands of man-years upfront starting from scratch. Over time, of course, Carbon has improved a lot and you can mix/match Carbon & Cocoa views/code to the point where you can’t realistically tell which is which. I appreciate what a monumental effort Carbon was, from a technical standpoint. That Cocoa apps always felt ‘better’ is more to Cocoa’s credit than Carbon being a bad thing - it’s a lot easier to see that in hindsight.

Apple tried to get all of the big companies to port their existing applications to Cocoa/Yollow Box and failed. Carbon made the transition to Mac OS X possible. It may have saved Apple.

The Macintosh Secret Trick List

Archived from Gopher by UPENN, I give you The Macintosh Secret Trick List, compiled by Brian Kendig. All new for 1993! Two of my favorite entries are:

Apple Fax Modem:

  1. While holding down the button on the front panel, turn on the modem.
  2. The modem will beep three times.
  3. After the three beeps, press the button again three times, timed exactly in "rhythm" with the beeps.

If your timing is correct, the modem will speak the digitally-recorded voices of the three developers saying their names ("Peter, Alan, Neal")

Finder 7.0 and MacsBug:

  1. Turn on Balloon Help and point to the MacsBug file.

The balloon reads: This file provides programmers with information proving that it really was a hardware problem…

Pkgsrc for PowerPC Macs

ClassicHasClass on the state of open source binaries available for Power Macs running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger.

One of the things that keeps our Power Macs relevant (besides this project, of course) is a steady stream of ready-to-use open source software; as even 10.6 becomes considered "legacy" this is an even greater concern. In fact, because TenFourFox depends on gcc 4.6 to build (a compiler never shipped with any version of PPC OS X) and various other tools, we wouldn't exist as a project without it.

That's where Sevan Janiyan comes in: an up-to-date build of substantial parts of pkgsrc-current for 10.4/10.5 on PowerPC, with pre-built binaries saving you enormous amounts of time. Using his easy-to-follow instructions, install the bootstrap, set your environment up, and start pkg_adding your way to awesome. All the usual suspects are there, including Perl, Python, Ruby, gcc and lots of necessary libraries.

It has been my pleasure to set Sevan up with the Power Mac G4 (Mirrored Drive Doors 2003) he has used to compile this exhaustive collection of binaries. (All donated by MIT.) It is amazing how far a single 1.25 GHz PowerPC G4 processor and a lot of effort will get you.

Hemingwrite

Call me crazy, but I just don't see the point of the Hemingwrite, a $349 "distraction free writing tool with modern technology like a mechanical keyboard, e-paper screen and cloud backups."

The Hemingwrite combines the best features of all previous writing tools with the addition of modern technology. It is dedicated like a typewriter, has a better keyboard and battery life than your computer and is distraction free like a word processor. Finally, we sync your documents to the cloud in real-time so you never have to worry about saving, syncing or backing up your work.

For less than $20 you can have an AlphaSmart that does most of what the Hemingwrite can do for a lot less Hipster, and a whole lot less cash.