Saturday, July 09, 2011

OS Time Machine: A Modest Proposal

The latest version of OSX, due out shortly, does not include Rosetta, software included in past versions to make it possible to run programs written for older versions of the hardware. One result is that Eudora, the Email program which I have been using for almost twenty years and on which I have an enormous collection of past correspondence, will stop working when and if I update the operating system. The obvious solution is to move all of my accumulated email to a more up to date email program, probably Thunderbird. So far my attempts to do so have been unsuccessful—mailboxes copy over, but their content does not. Until I can solve that problem, I do not plan to update to Lion.

There is, however, another and more elegant way in which the problem could be solved. While I cannot run a program that worked under OSX10.2 but broke under 10.3, I can and occasionally do run programs under OS9, using a free third party emulator and Apple system software to which I have a license based on my ownership of the long obsolete machine it originally ran on.

What open source volunteers did for SheepShaver, Apple programmers, with vastly greater resources and unlimited access to Apple's own past software, could surely do better. Emulation is a well developed technology; I can switch among the current version of OSX, either of two versions of Windows (in Parallels), or OS9 in Sheepshaver, without ever having to reboot my machine. It is true that emulation carries some penalty in speed—but I would expect that to be more than outweighed by running software designed for machines of five or ten years ago on current hardware. Maintaining, in effect, multiple copies of Apple's system software on one machine would tie up a certain amount of hard drive storage—but modern machines have very large hard drives.

Apple's current approach to backup is an elegant program named Time Machine. Instead of giving you a  backup of your hard drive as it was at some point in the past, it gives what its name implies, access to the state of your drive as it existed a day ago, a week ago, a month ago. That could be very convenient when you discover that it was last month that you accidentally deleted a document you now need or made changes you would now like to undo. 

What I am proposing is the OS equivalent. Most users most of the time would be running the latest version of the operating system. If I want to run Eudora, I enter OS Time Machine, scroll back to OSX 10.6, and am good to go. If I want to entertain myself with Warlords II, a game that I and other members of my family spent quite a lot of time playing a very long time ago, I scroll back to OS9, perhaps even OS8, and play it. If I want to access documents written with WriteNow, my and family's favorite word processor for many years but now many years unsupported, or on AppleWorks, which at the moment still runs on current software but not very well, those too would be easy options. Emulation is not, of course, perfect; their might be occasional glitches. But it ought to be adequate for most purposes.

And very cool.

When I mentioned the idea to my wife, she pointed out a further advantage. Home computers such as the TRS80 and the Apple II first became widely available more than thirty years ago. That means that at this point, there are quite a lot of people in their fifties, some in their sixties or older, who have been routinely using computers for most of their adult life, not even including those who started out earlier on mainframes. 

As people get older, they tend to become more conservative. At twenty, learning a new program to do something your old program already does,  perhaps do it a little better or with a few more bells and whistles, feels like an adventure, a challenge. At sixty it may feel more like a chore. Once OS Time Machine is incorporated in the Macintosh system software, you never have to do it again. If the new program has new features you want, you buy it and learn it. If the advantages of the new are outweighed by the very large advantage of software you have been using for years and are intimately familiar with, or if the changes actually make the new software less suitable for your purposes than the old, you don't. I expect there are already enough cybergeezers to make up a significant market niche, and the number can only increase.

Over time, OS Time Machine could introduce additional features. Double click on a program that no longer runs on the latest version of the OS, and it automatically shifts you back to the most recent version under which it did run before loading the program.

So far as I can see, the proposal is technically doable, although it would of course cost Apple something in programmer time and other expenses. The strongest argument I can see against it is that it would increase the complexity of the Macintosh software universe by keeping more old programs in use, programs that users might, perhaps unreasonably, expect Apple itself to support, a cost that might more than outweigh the benefits.

But I hope not.


Anonymous said...

Ha! I also played Warlords II a lot while a kid. It's a great social game, similar to the board game RISK but with more details and options. The more players the better I liked it.

also hate changing software, still using Windows XP.

Anonymous said...

Emulation is more costly than you think, at least that's what my experience with DosBox (to relive my childhood computer games from the 90ies) tells me.

Chris Hibbert said...

A bigger problem is that the old software doesn't get security updates, so modern viruses and other malware would have free reign. For games, you could run in a sandbox that you throw away when you're done playing, but older email or word processing programs need to continue to make persistent changes that you want to save.

If people continue to use them, and the OS and hardware are no longer being maintained, then the hackers have unlimited time to continue searching out new vulnerabilities.

Hernan Coronel said...

Economics and security David! Keepig a single modern OS up to date and secure is expensive enough for a company to do and as as Chris Hilbert pointed out malware would wreak havoc on your older unmaintained versions of other OSs and maintaining them would be too expensive for any company.
Still your point is very valid and there have been many writings on this matter related to content like music/video (think Vinyl Records, cassette tapes, LaserDiscs, CDs, DVDs, bluray and many I have forgot here). In the long run I think you will have to use VMs for the different images you'd like to keep and try to migrate as much as possible using competing software that know how to migrate the other competitor's software to the new one.

Anonymous said...

Carroll Lam said...

I too, like you have used Eudora "forever" and have dreaded the day that it would no longer run on the Mac.

There is a better solution than Thunderbird. It is MailForge, which has been designed from the ground up as follow-on to Eudora. I have started running it on my Mac along with Eudora to get used to it. The good thing about MailForge is that you can import mailboxes, nicknames, and filters directly into it from Eudora, and they all work. MailForge is still a work in progress and doesn't yet have all the capabilities of Eudora but it's getting close.

You can read more about it here:

I have no interest in Mailforge other than that of a potential user.

Jonathan said...

I moved from Eudora to Thunderbird in 2006, and at that time Thunderbird 1.5 imported all my settings and messages from Eudora, with only the inconvenience that it imported all messages as unread.

If you have problems doing the same operation now, you could try asking on a Thunderbird forum. What was possible in 2006 should still be possible now, I'd have thought, unless that capability really has been lost somehow.

I was and still am operating under Windows, not Mac OS, but I wouldn't expect that to make much difference.

I'm still a happy user of Thunderbird today, though I use it for personal mail only. For work mail, I'm obliged to use Microsoft Outlook, an inferior and annoying program.

A possible problem with the idea of an OS time machine is that old operating systems may require significant rewriting in order to run on modern hardware.

For instance, CP/M was written for the Z80 processor and normally ran off diskettes on computers that had no hard disks. I imagine that getting CP/M running on a modern computer could be more trouble than it's worth.

David Friedman said...

Eudora Mailbox Cleaner was recommended as a way of making it easier to move from Eudora to Thunderbird (or Mail), and I'm trying it. So far it looks as though for my Eudora, which has more than 3 gigs of stuff on it, cleaning takes a very long time--I'm guessing several days of processing. And the first time, after many hours, it crashed. I'm not sure if I can solve that by cleaning one mailbox at a time.

I had the impression from comments on Mailforge that it wasn't quite ready for real use, but I may try it anyway--if it will import my stuff. Part of the problem may be that my Eudora mail has been around long enough, moving from one machine to another, that by now many of the files are in one way or another corrupted, a problem that shows up when I try to import them to something else.

Jonathan said...

I never heard of Eudora Mailbox Cleaner before, and certainly didn't need it in 2006, but maybe your message files are in a worse state than mine were.

Most e-mail programs seem to have a built-in command for 'compacting' message files; certainly Thunderbird and Outlook have, I don't remember about Eudora by now. If you have such a command, you're supposed to use it periodically, and I suppose it should keep the files in a clean state.

If you have some large message files, it may help to split them up into smaller ones.

My Thunderbird message files are almost 4 GB by now; not to mention my Outlook message files, which are much larger in total because they often include substantial file attachments. But I've retired the old Outlook messages to DVDs, because I don't normally need to look at work messages from previous years.

Lex Spoon said...

You asked before a similar question about World of Warcraft. Why not keep the old versions available?

I used to spend some time booting up ancient computer games in various kinds of emulators. It was a real blast from the past, especially because I approach things now than I used to.

However, nowadays I don't think it's much more than a curiosity to run old, unmaintained software. It's hard to put my finger on why, but let me take a try at it.

The core of the problem is that the world is changing around the software. Useful software needs at least an occasional small update in order to work well in the changing conditions. Operating systems deprecate and phase out operations that no longer look like a good idea, meaning unmaintained software simply won't run at some point. It's just one example, though, of many other changes going on.

This leads to the secondary "problem". Whenever the software is useful enough to merit it, it will get updates anyway! It's a low bar to update software to run on new OSes. If even that much is not happening, then there must be some alternative that everyone has switched to. It's only a "problem", though, because it means you can switch, too.

All this said, have you considered gmail? You don't even mention web-based options....

Jonathan said...

Lex: I wouldn't mention Web-based options, either. I want my e-mail messages on my own hard disk, where I have control of them.

Incidentally, an advantage of Mozilla Thunderbird, and I think Eudora too, is that the messages are stored in plain text files, and can be read by an ordinary text editor if need be. They are future-proof to that extent. Whereas MS Outlook files are unintelligible without a program that understands their format.

Jonathan said...

Lex: "Whenever the software is useful enough to merit it, it will get updates anyway!"

This is not always true. Lotus Magellan was good, well-conceived, useful software, but Lotus never found out how to market it successfully, so it was killed in 1992.

I'm still using it, even though it's only partially functional under modern versions of Windows. It's still useful for some tasks, and I don't know of any more modern program that can do the same things.

Johannes said...

Hi David, please consider the following alternatves to Thunderbird, maybe they suit your needs better:

- Postbox
- Sparrow;productListing

David Friedman said...

I think I got everything transferred to Thunderbird using Eudora Mailbox Cleaner, although the process was complicated a little by the program sometimes stopping part way through. I then downloaded MailForge and imported everything to it from Eudora. It quit once part way through, but aside from that worked smoothly.

I'm now using MailForge, which does seem to have done a good job of copying the Eudora interface into newer software. It costs about $20, which struck me as entirely reasonable for the convenience.

Jonathan said...

Congratulations. If you have any trouble with MailForge later, bear in mind that Thunderbird's a good program; I haven't had trouble with it over the last five years.

Obviously, not having tried MailForge (nor even heard of it before), I couldn't say which is better.

David Friedman said...

Currently, my only MailForge problems are that the filtering doesn't seem to work properly, and trying to filter sometimes crashes the program. But I haven't done much fiddling around to deal with that. I may just have to rewrite filters.

Also, the online help files seem to be in the "real soon now" category at this point.

On the other hand, it feels faster and smoother than Eudora, not surprising given how old the latter is.

Jonathan said...

I used TAPCIS in the 1990s (a program specifically for Compuserve users), then went over to Eudora from 2000 to 2006. I don't remember exactly why I then switched to Thunderbird, but I think Eudora development had been virtually stagnant for some years already, and I suppose I decided to switch to a program with more signs of life.

Ari said...

I'd recommend GMail unless Google's privacy policy is a concern.

The benefits:
- Google has a big number of emails and users which means features, virus prevention and spam detection are updated constantly
- Priority inbox etc. for people who get a lot of email
- Automatic updates
- No settings or mailbox syncing, which means the emails are easily accessible from anywhere
- No need for manual backups
- Great search features
- Lots of diskspace (like 7 GB)
- Very little bugs

Possible drawbacks:
- No offline mode although that is possible with a Thunderbird but kind of kills the point of using webmail in the first place
- No easy integration with other software (eg. Outlook and Word, or Apple's iMail and other programs)
- Speed on slower computers and connections
- Google's privacy policy?
- Advertisements?

I have used gmail for a long time, and I probably won't go back standalone programs.

You can use gmail with an existing account, you just need to set up a forward (ask your email hoster) and add the email in gmail settings.

And no, I don't work for google.

David Friedman said...

Re Gmail:

I have a gmail account, use it as my backup email--when for some reason there is a problem with my main email address, for instance while I was shifting from Eudora to MailForge.

Incidentally, my filtering problems with MailForge seem to have been due to problems with the filters I imported from Eudora, some of which had at some point become corrupted--contained stuff that shouldn't have been there. After I went through all of them deleting or fixing, the filtering seemed to work--aside from sometimes crashing the program when it finished filtering.

MailForge doesn't seem to have any webbed manual, help files, or the like, at least that I can find, but a phone call to their support number did get answered, and I presume an email would.

Anton Sherwood said...

I remember writing apa-zines in WriteNow in 1987. Well, not really remember, but remember that I did so.

Anonymous said...

Besides the obvious portability, most emulators support
multiple options such as being able to save anywhere,
taking screenshots, as well as technical options like smoothing textures.

- John Davison's editorial about the Dreamcast being Sega's "make or break" is ridiculously depressing to read now.
Examine the spindle and eye for foreign objects like lint, hair, and so forth.

My page ... ps1 emulator (