I have an irrational affection for Panther, the forth major version of Apple’s Mac OS X operating system. Although a solid upgrade in its own regard, many would argue Panther was more of an evolutionary update, than a revolutionary one. Panther changed little in the way we use our computers today. It introduced few new features, and guided no major transitions in computer hardware. Its influence lasted less than a year and a half, and its legacy was overshadowed by the versions of Mac OS X that came before, and after it. To most people Panther was a footnote in the history of Mac OS. A filler between the months of October 2003, and April 2005, when no real progress to Mac OS X was made.
To me Panther was appealing for the timeframe it represents.
Mac OS X 10.3 Panther was a great time to be a Mac user. Apple had overcome the pending doom of the late 90’s, but had yet to secure its future in the next decade. A time when you might be the only Mac user in Starbucks, but you never felt alone in your decision to “Think Different.” Panther came during the middle of Steve Jobs second coming to Apple, when “one more thing,” was still to come, and no one had heard of an iPhone. The Power Mac G5 was the world’s fastest desktop computer during Panther’s reign. Mac OS X on Intel was only a whisper in the hallways of Apple R&D. I was lucky enough to be working as a Mac Genius when Panther was released. When Macs were still the primary focus at the Genius Bar, and the iPod had yet to steal the show at Macworld. Although Panther might not stand out as an operating system, it was a time I often wish I could revisit as a Mac user. If only to relive the excitement of knowing the best was yet to come.
The world has not been kind on Panther. The exciting times it foretold have long since passed it by. As an operating system it is devoid of a modern internet browser. Apple has turned off the automatic software update server for Macs running PowerPC processors, and it is becoming harder and harder to find older verions of my favorite software that will still run on Mac OS X 10.3. For the last week I have been running Panther on a 1.42GHz Mac mini as my primary computer. Everything is as I left it in April 2005, but the experience does not seem as powerful the second time around. So much of what we use our computers for today relies on the internet, and last year’s operating system, let alone the one released nearly ten years ago, has a hard time keeping up.
For email I am using Mail 1.3.11. The same email program that shipped with Panther, virtually unchanged from the version that shipped with Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar over one year earlier. Mail is one of my favorite programs in Mac OS X. I wish I could use it in Windows, and Linux as well. Because the email protocols rarely change. Panther’s version of Mail.app performs just as well today as it did ten years earlier. Installing a couple of missing intermediate and root certificate authorities solves SSL security exceptions, while MIT’s LDAP server gives me access to email address autofill I would otherwise get from Exchange. Personal contacts can be carried over using the widely accepted vCard format.
iCal on Panther is kind of a bust. Prior to Mac OS X 10.5, iCal did not support CalDAV syncing. .Mac was the only online service that could sync with Panther’s version of iCal. It is possible to export and import calendar entries using the .ics format, or use iSync to sync my agenda with an old-school iPod, but who manually syncs their calendar with their clickwheel iPod these days? I suppose it could be worse. iCal in Panther is dressed in Brushed Metal like many other 10.3 applications. Absent are any signs of Corinthian leather or little paper bits clinging to a skeuomorphic binding.
Brushed metal went prime time in Panther as it completed its campaign from QuickTime in Mac OS 8, to iTunes in Mac OS 9, and now to the Finder, iCal, iSync, and DVD Player in Mac OS X 10.3. There would never be an operating system with more Brushed Metal than Panther, and although we would tire of it quickly, it was a refreshing change from the pinstripes we had all grown sick of in the first three versions of Mac OS X. Along with Brushed Metal came a contagious desire to resemble iTunes. Panther included the first version of the Mac OS X Finder to feature a integrated search field, and left hand source pane, just like iTunes. Resizable drawers were on their way out, but you can still find them in Mail, and a few other apps that were not upgraded for Panther’s new look. Overall I think Panther’s appearance holds up well over the years thanks to its similarities with iTunes.
Besides browsing the internet, and corresponding with email I spent my last week with Panther writing, editing images, and reuniting with the older versions of my favorite software that still run on Mac OS X 10.3. The Unarchiver version 1.6.1 is essential for expanding older releases of Macintosh software still encoded in the long forgotten StuffIt format. Adium 1.0.6 makes for a useful iChat replacement for connecting with friends on Gmail, and Jabber who don’t use AIM for their instant messaging protocol. Most of my writing took place in SubEthaEdit 2.2, while coding could be done in BBEdit 8.5.2, complete with FTP. The last version of BBEdit to Support Mac OS X 10.3.9. In the days before Pixelmator, and Acorn, GraphicConverter made a pretty good image editor for PowerPC Macs, while the latest version of HyperDither 1.3, still works in Mac OS 10.3.9 and above. iTunes 4.7.1 is enough iTunes for anyone who just wants to listen to their music, as it supports both MP3 and AAC. Just don’t try to visit the iTunes Store, or sync your Music Library with your iPhone. iPhoto 5, and iMovie 5 were also included in iLife ‘05, and introduced along side the original Mac mini. Probably my favorite versions of these iLife applications before RAW and HD support ruined the magic of taking photos and editing videos with unneeded complexity. Panther meets the home computing needs of most people without brining anything Back to the Mac to get in the way.
There were only a few places Panther let me down. One was the absence of Spotlight for system wide searches. You would be surprised how often your use that magnifying glass in the top right corner to find what you are looking for, or press Command + Space to launch your favorite app, until it isn’t there. Luckily LaunchBar 4.3.8 helps elevate the need of turning to the Finder every time I wanted to run to a utility not kept in my dock. I also missed the convenient built-in dictionary offered by later versions of Mac OS X, and its integration with all my favorite writing apps. Not having access to Coda, my default web IDE was unfortunate. The first version of Coda appeared in time for 10.4, not 10.3. I wish more companies would supply helpful links to the legacy versions of their apps. I fear that the App Store model of app distribution teaches companies to only concentrate on the Now, and not look at how people might continue to use their products a couple of years down the road. By far my biggest hardship with week while running Panther was finding a way to sync. Without iDisk, MobileMe, Exchange support, or iCloud the only say to get things to and from my Mac mini was by sneakernet, or emailing it to myself. Not even the venerable Dropbox offers support for 10.3, and their new website is a no go with all but the most modern browsers.
Could I live in Panther for longer than a week? Sure, but I am glad I don’t have to. The internet has become such an integral part of personal computer, that not being able t fully integrate with it is a death blow no matter what operating system your are using. It is easier to blog from Panther, and edit images than it is on my iPad thanks to Mac OS X’s multitasking, but without the internet all is for not. Panther was a great time in Apple’s history, but we have all moved on. The future is no longer on the desktop. It doesn’t matter which operating system your are using. The future is in the cloud.