20 Years of macOS

It is 2021 and would you believe it, macOS is 20 years old. Like someone who found out about band before they became famous, I used Mac OS X back when it was a strangely futuristic operating system that most people had never heard of. 

I left school in the summer of 2001 and to help jumpstart my journey into further education, I used some money gifted to me by my grandparents to buy a G3 Snow iMac. Already a bit of a geek, I knew enough about Macs to know that they were now capable of running OS X, which was Unix based. This meant I could use it do geeky things like running Apache and PHP, and also write up college homework in Microsoft Office. Buying an G3 iMac in the summer of 2001 was also exceptionally poor timing because weeks later Apple would release an updated G4 model, which ran Mac OS X much more smoothly.

My early memories of Mac OS X were mainly of disappointment. Here was an exceedingly beautiful and stable operating system, but it was frustratingly slow. It would take many minutes to boot up, and simple tasks like opening a pulldown menu or resizing a window would cause it to chug. Until I received my free 10.1 upgrade from John Lewis, it was unusable, and so I stuck with MacOS 9.

After installing 10.1 I did however start using Mac OS X as my main system. I recently found some old screenshots from that era, and so I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the applications I was using 20 years ago. I’m not sure of the exact dates but I believe they are all from either 10.0 or 10.1. The screenshots were taken by 16 year old me, so please forgive the embarrassing MSN Messenger friend lists and poorly written homework assignments. 

Scouting around the screenshots, here’s what I was running in 2001:

Activity Monitor – Still something I use often to see how my system is performing. Thankfully now it looks a lot nicer. 

Adobe Reader – An awful piece of software, which is thankfully no longer needed on the Mac these days. In 2001, I must have thought it necessary, despite the Preview app being bundled with the OS.

AOL – It was ugly, but it was one of the best unmetered dialup services in the UK at the time.

Clock – Early versions of OS X included a clock ‘widget’. This wasn’t an official widget like we have now, nor was it the HTML based widgets we would later see in Dashboard. It was simply an application with a non-rectangular window. Best of all, it was possible to customise how translucent the clock was – a novelty in 2001. 

Fire – Before iChat, Fire was the app to use for accessing instant messaging platforms. ICQ, AIM, Yahoo – I was on all of them. The idea of instant messaging that emphasises online presence feels exceptionally dated now, since we are now always online. 

iCab – Back in 2001 decent web browsers were difficult to come by. There was no Safari yet. Internet Explorer was pretty good, and had the ability to customise its colour scheme to match the iMac being used.  There was also Mozilla, which was starting to become a usable alternative to IE, but was still extremely slow. iCab was the third option and the only one that really felt “OS X native”.  Astonishingly iCab is still available for download in 2021. 

iTunes – The first of Apple consumer high quality consumer oriented software that later included the likes of iPhoto and GarageBand. iTunes was in of itself a reason to own a Mac. It made the process of ripping and burning CDs painless. I remember the novel feeling of being able to browse the web while iTunes was burning a CD, thanks to Mac OS X’s ability to multitask. On Windows ME and 98 (XP had not been released yet) this wasn’t possible. Burning a CD would make the entire computer unresponsive. iTunes came in to its own with the release of the iPod, which I was lucky enough to own early on too. 

MSN Messenger – More commonly known as simply ‘MSN’, it was the centre of my social life from the age of 13. I would use it to chat to friends after school or to random people I’d added who I’d met on forums. I wonder if today we would be concerned if a 16 year old was talking to random people they’ve met online, but for me it was fine. At 16, I felt like I was an adult!

Microsoft Office – I purchased the full version of ‘Office X’ which included Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage. It was clearly a straight port from the classic MacOS version, and was using some kind of translation layer to translate Windows code to Mac code. I remember writing Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) code to make full on Windows windows appear. The headline feature for Word was non-contiguous selection.

Palm Desktop – This one really sums up 2001. Back then we had PDAs. My phone was a Motorola T191. If you wanted to have more than just a handful of phone numbers in your pocket, you needed a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). I would later upgrade my Palm IIIe to a Microsoft Pocket PC.

Stickies – The venerable Post-it note app. Enough said. 

Terminal – I used to use this for learning basic Linux commands, and configuring the likes of PHP, Apache and MySQL. Oh, and browsing the web in Lynx, apparently. 

Windows Media Player – Steaming audio or video on the web was a horrible experience in 2001. Partly due to limited bandwidth, but also because there were multiple competing formats. Apple would push QuickTime. Microsoft would insist on you installing Windows Media Player, and everyone else would use RealPlayer. Windows Media Player for the Mac wasn’t the full-on media management solution it was on Windows, but merely a way to playback files encrypted using Microsoft’s DRM.

After 20 years, I really think Apple deserve enormous credit for not screwing up macOS. Despite some missteps, on the whole they’ve keep modernising it without any major regressions. If you were to sit someone from 2001 down in front of the latest version of the operating system in 2021, they would find their way around just fine. Yet it doesn’t feel old. Contrast this to Windows, which has had multiple makeovers and seems to be less of a priority for Microsoft these days, doesn’t support non-modal dialogs, and still has screens that date back to Windows XP. Not many operating systems can claim to be referenced in a U2 song either. After all these years, macOS is still the only desktop operating system that feels like it’s made for users, rather than IT administrators or developers. Little things like being able to drag a project folder to the dock for the duration of that project in order to have easy access to all the related files, the ability to operate a background window without bringing it to the foreground, and best of all, the varied ecosystem of indie software.

Happy Birthday Mac OS X, here’s to 20 more years!

No Video Calls on Friday

The Guardian on Citigroup banning internal video calls on Fridays::

Global investment bank Citigroup has banned work video calls on Fridays in an attempt to help employees break free from the “relentlessness of the pandemic workday”.

Jane Fraser, Citi’s new chief executive, told staff that the last day of the working week would be known as “Zoom-free Fridays”.

This is in the context of what appears to be an unhealthy workaholic culture over at Citigroup, but it’s still interesting to see more and more people coming to the view that video calls aren’t always the right form of communication.

Here’s The Verge’s Nilay Patel:

Once it is safe to go back to the office, I can see myself and others opting to go in for meetings once or twice a week, while remaining at home the rest of the time to get work done. In this world video calls become increasingly unnecessary. It also sets a clear boundary between discussing getting work done, and actually getting work done, which might be quite illuminating.

Saying Goodbye to Podcast “Subscriptions”

Image courtesy of dbase.com

Apple is ditching the word ‘Subscribe’ as a means to describe the act of telling your favourite podcast player to keep checking a particular feed and have the latest episode available at a moment’s notice. Instead it will use “Follow”, which seems to make a lot more sense as a way represent passively consuming a feed at no cost. Subscribe is one of those words that predates podcasts, I remember “subscribing” to newsgroups as a teenager and worrying that my parents were going to receive a bill for it. They never did.

My bet is the etymology comes from email mailing lists, where I think the word subscribe still makes sense. Funnily enough, in 2021 email mailing lists are having something of a renaissance. With paid newsletters being in, and advertising being out, I also expect this change will be because Apple will be pushing paid podcasts, where the word subscribe does make sense.

Monetising Hobbies

That’s me (right) – want your logo on display?

I am looking for ways to monetise my running.  I usually run 5 kilometres a couple of times during the week and a longer 10 mile (16.10K) run at the weekend. This is a heavy time investment. The 5K runs take between 22 and 30 minutes depending on the weather, my energy levels and the incline of the route. Similarly, the 10 mile run takes usually takes around 1 hour and 26 minutes from my Sunday. This may seem like a small slice of the weekend, but I have to make sure I get up extra early and eat a good breakfast and then wait for a couple of hours before I’m ready to start pounding the pavement. On my return, I need a shower, followed by a long recovery period which involves eating again and then sitting still for a few hours. There are other costs too; a decent pair of running shoes costs between £100 and £120, and only last a year. I could pay less, but I like to support smaller, specialist running shops rather than the likes of Sports Direct. I also need shoes that offer strong support due to the weird way I run which increases the price still. Not forgetting too the copious amount of pasta and other carbohydrates I have to consume. Running costs more than you’d think.

All this has led me to the conclusion that I need to find a way to earn some extra cash from my running.

This post is of course, not at all serious. No, I am not looking for anyone to pay me to do the thing I enjoy. Just as I wouldn’t expect to be paid to go climbing, canoeing, golfing, or to watch a film at the cinema. It’s fine to have an interest that you don’t make money from. I never expect to make money from this blog. It is something I do because I enjoy it. It’s a hobby. I won’t go as far as to say I should be paying you to read it, but I do expect to pay a small amount for WordPress hosting, and to put a few hours a week into writing content.

The reason I’m writing this is because I’ve noticed a theme in various podcasts, blogs and YouTube channels that I’ve come across recently that some creators who are doing the thing they love and not as their sole means of income are expressing their dissatisfaction at not being able to monetise what is essentially a hobby. I use the term “hobby” not in a derogatory sense – indeed the fact that many creators are not a full on professionals is what gives some of my favourite podcasts and YouTube channels their charm.

Of course I’m not saying creators shouldn’t try to make money, and some professionals will of course rely on their creative output as their main source of income. For many of us however, maybe a hobby is just fine? We can’t all be The Verge. Just I’m never going to be competing at running with Mo Farah, not everyone will end up as successful as the podcast ATP.

If you enjoy the process of creating, and giving something away to an audience, then maybe that’s payment enough?

M1 Macs Really Are ‘Always-On’

Apple’s new M1 Macs use the same ‘always-on’ processor technology that mobile devices have been using for years. It has always been imperative that a mobile phone must be permanently sitting and listening, waiting for a call or message to come in, so it can sound the ringtone. Modern tablets such as the iPad evolved from this line of thinking and so are naturally always-on too.

Laptops and Desktops have however have never taken this route. Recent versions of Windows and macOS will wake up periodically to perform certain tasks, or in response network events, but I’ve never noticed them doing much in realtime.

I was surprised then to notice that my new M1 MacBook, while apparently asleep, was busy running rules on incoming mail seconds after it had arrived. My phone buzzes as a new email is received, and I open the mail app on my phone to see the message has been flagged, moved or whatever else I have set as a rule on my Mac. This would happen with my old 2013 MacBook, but the rules would only run every few hours. It’s not a bug as far as I can tell, as the battery life when the MacBook is sleeping is still outstanding. I’m yet to explore how this works, or how much 3rd party developers can take advantage of this always-on state, but the possibility of having powerful devices, which aren’t locked down in the same way as iPads and iPhones, performing useful tasks in near realtime while using hardly any battery, is pretty exciting.

Update: As of macOS 11.3, Apple has restored hibernation support to M1 Macs. Hibernation mode is a lower power state Mac laptops go into after being asleep for around 3 hours. I’ve not noticed any difference in behaviour yet, let me know about your experience in the comments.

Time to Turn Off Video to Avoid Online Meeting Fatigue?

Researchers at Stanford have identified four causes of what they call “Zoom fatigue”. They all resonate with me as someone who has a lot of online meetings,. (Though I’m not keen on the attempt to turn “Zoom” into a generic noun!)

I recommend reading the article in full, but the four causes boil down to excessive eye contact, always seeing yourself, reduced mobility, and higher cognitive load due to the fact it’s difficult to interpret body language. The solutions offered range from suggestions on how conference software could be adapted to taking regular “audio only” breaks.

Seeing people is great, and a necessary part of working together, but once the the initial greetings are done, it adds little value most of time, in my experience at least. Thankfully Microsoft Teams lets you hide other people’s video as well as your own. Back when I used to work in the office, I would often pace up and down while on calls with clients, and studies have shown we are more intelligent and creative when we’re moving. Now though, as the Stanford team point out, we are all sat in chairs, staring at each other directly in the eyes all day.

There is no doubt that video is useful when you’re meeting people for the first time and trying to form a connection with them, or for calls where you really want to gauge the other person’s true feelings about something. But for meetings that require excessive brainpower or creativity, it’s probably worth switching off video and going for a walk.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

Moving Away From LastPass Premium

LastPass made headlines recently because it’s stripping back its free offering and asking users to pay for features that were once bundled for free.

I’ve been a paid LastPass subscriber for over 5 years, and over that time it has become a critical part of both my professional and home workflows. The problem is the issues it had 5 years ago are still problems now. The product seemingly hasn’t moved forward much at all. LastPass has a fundamental misunderstanding of basic User Interface design principals. It looks awful and is difficult to use. Each app behaves differently on different platforms, and features are shoehorned in with little regard to the expected user workflow. How many times have I searched for a site, copied the username, only to have to search for the site again in order to copy the password. Errors are frequent, when generating a new password I always end up pasting it into a text editor temporarily in case LastPass fails to save it. It’s also incredibly slow, even on 2020 Intel i5 processor.

I mention this because I recently helped a friend migrate from LastPass’s free offering to Apple’s iCloud Keychain. Compared so LastPass, iCloud is so much nicer to user. I understand LastPass are at a disadvantage in trying to make their product fit into the ecosystems of Apple and Google, but it made me think about switching. Now Apple have made an official way to access iCloud passwords on Windows, I’m seriously thinking about switching. To their credit LastPass do make it easy to get a CSV export of all your data.

What’s your experience with iCloud Keychain? Is it worth switching to from LastPass Premium?

Chrome Uses More RAM by Design

Great video by Matt that shows that Chrome isn’t always that different to Safari in its memory consumption as others have found. Most of my daily collaboration is done using Microsoft Teams, which is an Electron app – which is to say a web application bundled in its own Chromium wrapper so it can run like a desktop application. I’ve often noticed Microsoft Teams takes up huge amounts of RAM, especially considering it’s not really doing anything that complicated most of the time. A while back I researched phenomena and found this article about how Chromium manages memory on Microsoft’s site:

Chromium detects how much system memory is available and utilizes enough of that memory to optimize the rendering experience. When other apps or services require system memory, Chromium gives up memory to those processes. Chromium tunes Teams memory usage on an ongoing basis in order to optimize Teams performance without impacting anything else currently running.

When computers have more memory, Teams will use that memory. In systems where memory is scarce, Teams will use less.

Put simply, Chrome is taking the idea that ’empty RAM is wasted RAM’, and running with it. The article goes on to link to the specific documentation from the Chromium project.

This reminds me of when Windows Vista came out, complete with a sidebar full of widgets. One of the default widgets showed CPU and RAM usage. At the time I was working in my local computer retailer, and remember customers being shocked that even with no applications running, Windows Vista was often using 40% of the available RAM, even on higher spec’d machines. Of course Windows was doing a smart thing by pre-loading applications likely to be used into memory so they could be launched faster, and so it was nothing to worry about.

Chrome’s philosophy has long been that it is an operating system for the web – it even has its own task manager. So it makes sense from that perspective to grab as much memory as possible, and use it to speed things up for users. For users who spend most of their day inside Chrome, it’s probably doing them a favour. The problem is that these days we often end up running multiple instances of Chrome or Chromium derived apps like Slack or Teams competing alongside each other for system resources.

As Matt shows, the difference between Safari isn’t always that much, but the important thing to remember is that Chrome’s memory usage will depend on how much overall memory your system has available.

‘M1 Mac Users Report Excessive SSD Usage’

From 9to5 Mac:

Some advanced users have been reporting an overuse of the SSD for writing and reading data on the newly-released Macs with M1, Apple’s first computer chip based on ARM architecture. The issue could eventually affect the lifespan of the internal SSD used in M1 Macs — not to mention the machine itself.

My betting is on this being a bug in the software being used to measure SSD usage (a utility called smartmontools that can be installed via Homebrew). SSD usage seems like something that should be pretty easy to automate testing for, and so for this to be a bug would be a major omission from Apple’s test suite. Not impossible of course.

Botched Cosmetic Surgery

Riccardo Mori has written a thoroughly enjoyable critique of the the latest macOS user interface design. This passage in particular made me laugh:

The Mac’s user interface is undergoing plastic surgery by the hand of surgeons who have studied on iOS books. The result is pretty much the same as when you see a favourite celebrity after a procedure. They look ‘younger’ but there’s also something weird about their appearance. Their traits have changed a bit. In certain cases you almost fail to recognise the person at first glance.

I’ve not upgraded my aging 2013 MacBook Air just yet, but I’ve experienced Big Sur when briefly using my girlfriend’s laptop. I agree there is something that feels slightly ‘off’ about the new design. Even small details, like the fact that the new control centre glyph looks like a set of miniature switches – which are a UI components themselves. Whether the new UI will grown on me as iOS 7’s did (I was an iOS 6 holdout for many months) will depend on how much Apple refine the new look over the coming months a years, as they did with iOS. Perhaps my theory will one day hold true, that Big Sur’s big surprise is that it will support touch screens after all.

My fondest memories of Mac OS X was probably Puma. This was a free updated related after 10.0’s abysmal stability and performance problems. I remember picking it up for free from John Lewis. (In lieu of an Apple Store – there were none in the UK at the time – they were the one of the few places to get such things.) Back then Mac OS X seemed like a new frontier in user interface design. Here is what 16 year old me’s desktop looked like in 2002: