Ray Patrick

RIP Classilla

by Ray Patrick (other posts)

The End of an Era

I’m no longer a fan of Apple, but I used to like Macs. The first computer I ever used was a Macintosh Performa 630CD running some version of System 7:

My setup wasn’t this nice.
My setup wasn’t this nice.

Though it was never connected to the Internet, it still taught me a lot. The interface was simple, but you could do some nifty things once you got proficient. Early (pre-Intel) Macs had a very strong hobbyist culture, and there was no limit to the amount of creative shareware stuff out there. Using this thing as a kid, I learned something that’s become almost impossible to learn with any current mainstream OS: a computer is a machine that you can program to do whatever you want!

Even today, when there’s a good chance people reading this weren’t even alive when pre-Intel Macs were in use, there’s still a ferocious (if small) base of fans that refuse to use anything released post-Y2K. Macintosh abandonware is hosted at places like The Macintosh Garden and The Macintosh Repository. Certain sites, such as System 7 Today and the 6400 Zone are dedicated to specific niches in OS and hardware. There are even some borderline-crazy pages like Mac OS 9 Lives, which is dedicated to preserving Mac OS 9 in particular, but reads more like some Quixotic revolt against Moore’s Law. It’s almost heroic in a way, and a little tragic; it reminds me of that poor soldier in Pompeii who died because he refused to abandon his post.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Of course, you don’t have to be partial to pre-Intel Macs to understand that computers were faster when they were slower. As consumer-grade computers have grown in capability, developers have had the privilege of becoming lazier and lazier. Gone are the days when you had to care about processor bottlenecks, limited memory, or intermittent Internet connectivity. Nowadays, developers seem to assume by default that everybody has 8 cores, 64 GB of RAM, and constant broadband Internet access. They can afford to write kludgy garbage because modern desktops and laptops are so powerful. The only losers are those with older hardware.

For users of old hardware, one of the most difficult nuts to crack is browsing the modern Web. HTTPS and today’s encryption schemes, to say nothing of the ridiculous amounts of JavaScript, images, and fancy CSS effects out there are simply too much for, say, a PowerPC Mac to handle. There were a few projects geared towards making it possible to browse the modern Web with old Macs, but the best solution to this problem was Classilla, an ingenious project that modified a fork of the early Mozilla Internet Suite (itself descended from the venerable Netscape) to provide support for a lot of Web 2.0 content on late PowerPC Macs running Mac OS 8.x - 9.x. Even my own site renders pretty well on a machine running Mac OS 9:

Now that’s backwards compatibility.
Now that’s backwards compatibility.

Sadly, this ambitious one-man project finally reached end-of-life last year. Like John Henry, it kept pace with technological progress, but eventually died in the effort.

RIP Classilla - you’ll be missed.

Topics: software technology