Why use old computers and operating systems?

On this blog, I write about the various computers I use and about the operating systems I use on them. Apart from Windows 7, which is relatively modern, these include Mac OS 10.6 Snow Leopard, which at this point is quite old, and Mac OS 9, which is practically ancient. I’d like to talk a bit about why I use such old systems.

Joy

I’ve mentioned before that, to me, computers are more than just a means to an end. I enjoy them or dislike them to the extent that they are a reflection of myself, to the extent that I can identify myself with them. They bring me immense joy – as well as much irritation, unfortunately…

Because I see computing as an interest, a hobby and a passion, I don’t like to use computers and operating systems that I don’t enjoy using, in the same way that somebody who enjoys literature isn’t interested in reading literature that they think is poorly written. That’s why I refuse to use Windows 10. The poor user interface just hurts my soul.

It happens to be that some of the best, most well-designed, most enjoyable user interfaces are buried in history. There is no modern equivalent to the Macintosh. If I want an enjoyable computing experience, then I am forced to look in the past.

Apps

Even from a totally pragmatic standpoint, there are good reasons not to reject old computers. To me, the most glaring example is HyperCard, a revolutionary application for the Macintosh which literally does not exist on modern operating systems. If you’ve never used it, it’s hard to appreciate just how incredible it was, but imagine if spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel stopped being developed and eventually just disappeared – that’s the level of significance that HyperCard had.

Quite literally, the only way to use HyperCard is to get a hold of an old Mac – or emulate it, but emulation always falls short of the real deal. That’s why HyperCard alone is a pretty clear reason to use Mac OS 9 today. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I regularly boot up my iMac G3; once you’ve discovered it, HyperCard is just too useful to give up.

Example of a HyperCard stack

I use HyperCard to keep track of the Russian literature that I read.

Specificity

When it comes to retro computing, the inevitable question is how to access the web. The answer is that it isn’t always possible. My iMac G3 is technically able to browse the web, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience, nor a very useful one. My 2009 Mac Mini running Snow Leopard handles it relatively well, but even Snow Leopard has problems accessing a lot of modern web sites.

I think the only solution is to stop expecting every computer to be general-purpose. In the human world outside of computers, general-purpose tools are pretty rare. No one expects there to be a single screw that fits all holes.

If we applied this type of thinking to computers, I think we could have a healthier relationship to them. I’m quite happy for my iMac to be my HyperCard machine. As long as I have a way to transfer data to and from it, it works rather well.

In fact, as cell phones become more and more general-purpose, I suspect there will be more room for non-general-purpose personal computers. There is a ton of software, just like HyperCard, waiting to be discovered in the depths of computer history, and the computers needed to run them are cheap. If you like WordStar, why not get an old DOS machine? Even if WordStar is the only program you’ll run on it, it might be a worthwhile endeavor – as long as you have space for it.

13 Responses to “Why use old computers and operating systems?”

  1. c1ph4 says:

    Hello, I absolutely feel you here, thanks for this valuable annotation! Especially your comment about dumbing down modern PC systems is one of the most important and unfortunately most seldom read statements of recent times. I’m not a Mac user but may add the “keyboard” of an Android smartphone as another example: I’m writing this comment from one. Writing must be one of the most annoying, error-prone and time-wasting efforts on such devices. Which makes you think even when Android runs on Linux, these are no smart devices but just consuming devices (videos, music, social feeds, etc.). You simply can not use those as creat ion devices. If you want proof, programm code with your “smartphone”!

  2. Ray says:

    This needed to be said – you did, and most eloquently so. Of course, in my case, it works because it resonates: I have the very first Bondi Blue iMac running Mac OS 8 in my desktop, which I only use for two things: Listening to music CDs in Dolby Surround, and writing non-technical stuff in its no-nonsense TextEditor. As a general recommendation to anyone reading this, PowerPC Macs as well as older SPARC servers are very fun (and usually very cheap) hardware to play with.

  3. devendra says:

    great article! , also Reusing is a great way to contribute to the world of ecology. The many benefits of reuse include extending the shelf life of existing computers, which in turn slows down the production of new computers and keeps the flow of raw materials to landfills at a steady rate.

  4. keithpeter says:

    At work some time ago (pre-2004 but after millennium I think) I got issued with a desktop PC with a flat screen (gosh) running windows 2000 / office 2000. The improvement over the previous Windows ME was very noticible – no crashes, very solid and I was able to work effectively.

    I also remember my personal iBook (white G4 with MacOS 9 at first then Mac OS X up to Tiger). For the time a long battery life. Textedit, Preview (with its ability to crop images from pdf files and paste them as pdf into Textedit) and a commercial application called Tinderbox by Eastgate Systems stand out in my memory from that machine. I have less fond memories of the early Spotlight implementations.

    Now I use Linux, so I can go back in time and try different GUIs (CDE, OpenStep &c). But I find a current KDE usable if not a fine vintage. I just wish there was a Textedit for Linux…

  5. Alia K says:

    I completely understand where you’re coming from. I hate this wasteful urge to throw away and replace with the latest shiny thing. I generally don’t throw away computers which work and for the ones which don’t I like to figure out a way to fix them or repurpose them.

    I’m currently writing on a 2015 MacBook pro (w/16 gig quad core i7 and an ssd drive, it has the perfect keyboard, sd card slots, hdmi, usb A slots, and thunderbolt 2 ports. It’s perfectly featured and, runs everything at an excellent speed. I literally skipped the last 6 years of macs because I didn’t the stupid reduction of features or the addition of useless ones like the Touch Bar.. How amusing that these features are coming back.

    I have a 15 year old iMac which I use for music sequencing and programming and it works great… I wish I didn’t get rid of my old mac tower which preceded it but marriage and kids and need for space took precedence. It was a lovely machine, and served me well for work and music. There were a few mac os 9 programs which just can’t be found anymore… a sequencer/looper based on number theory which was just exquisite…O well you can’t keep them all.. (-:

  6. April1975 says:

    Thank you for this post. I have an old computer I haven’t been able to part with. After reading this, it’s making me think about repurposing it.

  7. […] On this blog, I write about the various computers I use and about the operating systems I use on them. Apart from Windows 7, which is relatively modern, these include Mac OS 10.6 Snow Leopard, which at this point is quite old, and Mac OS 9, which is practically ancient. I’d like to talk a bit about why I use such old systems. […]

  8. I too spent a lot of effort trying to make my old Macs useful and relevant, until one day I just threw up my hands and said “you know what, they’re just fine as they are…”. Still I wonder what if I could incentivize software maintenance for them with some novel economic scheme…

    Even 32bit x86 PCs are slowly getting left behind in the dust, as Linux distros drop support for them.

  9. Jason Rhodes says:

    Oh yes how I miss Hypercard

  10. Nils Lundstrom says:

    Old? I still use an Amiga 2000 to develop non-os targeted C and C++ code just because it is clean and task oriented with few distractions. And not to forget nostalgic 🙂

  11. Peter Veltmans says:

    Speaking about HyperCard, there IS a modern version of it, called LiveCode, and able to be installed on any of the major operating systems. It even has a community supported open source edition. See https://livecode.org/download-member-offer/

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