To continue our examination of desktop computing systems of bygone years and their possible modern equivalents or emulations:
Apple MacIntosh The famously boxy machine from Apple which truly defined the desktop computer for most of the 80’s. It was the first commercially successful desktop computer to sport the now-familiar graphical user interface, and use the mouse pointer extensively for functions. Hypercard and MacDraw were introduced with this system.
Emulators: They are spotty here and there, with some availability under MESS. Remember that with the famous “look and feel” lawsuit of 1994, companies are now a little more nervous about emulating a MacIntosh than they would be, despite how the tables turned later. One notable hack is the on-line MacIntosh system 7 emulator… in Flash! Fun toy and it will bring back the memories, but not completely implemented as a full system and not useful for much…
Yes, the games even work! And there are those detailed monochrome graphics you remember and love so well!
BeOS Having a BeBox in the early 90’s was the ultimate proof of being both a computing enthusiast and a strident rebel. Many of us today wouldn’t know about the BeBox if Neal Stephenson hadn’t draped it with praise in his landmark essay, “In the Beginning Was the Command Line”. The Be was a concept re-forged from scratch out of the fourth generation of desktop machines; it was directed at multimedia uses, and found a halfway point between an all-GUI system and a Unix-Bash-like command line for when you really needed it.
Emulators: Be, Inc. is no more, but various bits and pieces of the BeBox and BeOS legacy live on in the form of Slashdot rumors. Getting the original BeBox hardware is almost guaranteed to be an expensive and lengthy quest – log into eBay and try your luck. As for the BeOS interface, several options exist. The Linux desktop environment KDE has a BeOS theme…
… but that’s just a half-measure. There is an open-source modern version of the BeOS called Haiku…
…but it still isn’t finished yet. Then there’s the commercial, proprietary implementation of BeOS, which is Zeta…
…but as of Thursday 05 April 2007, “With immediate effect, magnussoft Deutschland GmbH has stopped the distribution of magnussoft Zeta 1.21 and magnussoft Zeta 1.5. According to the statement of Access Co. Ltd., neither yellowTAB GmbH nor magnussoft Deutschland GmbH are authorized to distribute Zeta.”
Then there’s this lucky guy from last century who reports having gotten a Be OS Personal Edition that would run as an executable under Windows 95/98, and even shows screen shots… just before Be went out of business. You can get a version of this for Windows here, but it’s alpha and only as recent as 2000, and doesn’t list that it runs on XP.
Can you see where this is going? There are several more half-done or just-canceled trials at bringing Be back to partial life, but generally you’ll find the quest for BeOS to be like hunting for a unicorn. Feel free to post further clues in the comments. We’ll hunt it down like a wild animal!
NextStep The legendary “cube”, perhaps most famous for being the machine Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web on, and also the first computer to run Wolfenstein 3D and Doom! Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985 to go start up NeXT, Inc. The resulting skirmish was a four-way flame-war between Apple, NeXT, Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy, and Bill Gates for many years. The NeXT machine was hailed as being stunningly ahead of it’s time, but you didn’t see much of it outside of universities and engineering cubicles.
Emulation: On the hardware side, you’re about as likely to be able to buy a working NeXT cube today as you are a flying car. But the NeXTSTEP operating system lucked out, in the form of the surprisingly popular GNU project “GNUStep”, also known as “Window Maker”. Window Maker is a window manager that runs on top of the Unix X Windows system, which means it’s all over Linux, BSD, and other Unix-family systems.
The GNUStep implementation is an almost flawless copy of the NeXTSTEP desktop. It is also OpenStep compatible. And if you’re hungry for those crazy little tiny cube programs that ran in the dock, there’s dockapps.org. The only downside to dockapps, is that there is no standard to them and very few packages created for them. Your most typical dockapp install will involve compiling it from scratch from an undocumented source code tarball, after chasing all over the Internet to find the three tiny, dumb 5MB libraries it depends on (the last of which was only available from a 1-Kilo-Hertz server in Nowhereistan, with instructions in Ancient Greek.), which is a lot of trouble to go to to get a cool space-themed clock or a miniature Tetris game. Even the geekiest Linux zealot gets frustrated installing dockapps.
Amiga Who could ever forget the Amiga? Probably the most-adored and most-missed computer on the home market, this system has a fan base that borders on fanatical, due to the highly advanced nature of this system, which was several generations ahead of its time. Amiga spawned its own culture of graphics and audio art demos, the production of which (known as the “demoscene”) became cultural events in themselves throughout the industrialized world. Famous fans of the system include Andy Warhol, Billy Idol, Stephen Spielberg, and Arthur C. Clarke. Amigas are still in use today for their high multimedia capabilities in such environments as TV stations, amusement parks and NASA satellite laboratories. Software for the Amiga was so stunningly advanced, many systems today are just beginning to match it. There are still small hardware companies making expansion hardware for it.
Emulation: Forget getting the hardware if you don’t own it already; anybody who owns an original box isn’t selling (and they’re likely to tell you “from my cold dead hands” if you ask!). Various companies have popped up and died away trying to re-implement the Amiga line (AmigaOne, not at all to be confused with Amiga classic), including some out-right impostors. The aforementioned MESS emulator has plug-ins for Amiga emulation, and there’s also the Amiga Forever project and the UAE (Unix Amiga Emulator) project with ports for Windows and other systems. And there’s an attempt at a Linux-embedded Amiga-compatible (but not an emulator of Amiga!) system called AROS. In perpetual alpha. And so on…
But you have to understand that this will be nowhere near the experience of running on the original box, due to the Amiga’s very custom-designed chip set and operating system which shared the best features of MacIntosh and Unix while being incompatible with both. Getting software that was originally designed for the Amiga to run on any other machine may run from acceptable to impossible, no matter how good the emulator software is. There is simply no question of compromise with the Amiga. It’s the original or nothing. Perhaps someday some company will realize the feverish demand for the original Amiga and obtain the rights to pick up where it left off. There’s an instant billionaire waiting to be made from this.
OS/2 Ugh. OS/2’s sole function in life is to show that Microsoft Windows could have been worse. A collaboration between IBM and Microsoft in 1985 before Microsoft got the original Windows off the ground, OS/2 saw little deployment outside very small industry niches. Because IBM had such mind-share in the banking industry, just about every OS/2 system ever sold will be found running behind the scenes at a bank. It almost runs on top of DOS on a PC, sometimes achieving a staggering uptime of ten minutes as long as you don’t touch the mouse and keyboard or breathe on it too hard. And who could forget the chess program, which, even on the most difficult setting, was still easily beatable in ten moves by a novice?
Emulators: None, due to zero demand. Anything that could run on OS/2 systems can also run in Windows, since they’re both based on DOS.
Still Kicking: Even though the below systems and interfaces qualify as vintage, they still survive today.
Plan Nine from Bell Labs, first seen in the 1980’s. If anybody wants it, it’s still here, in a live CD that boots on a PC. Has also spawned the Inferno project by Lucent Technologies. Has some teary-eyed fans, and some detractors.
TWM, the “Tab Window Manager”, was developed in 1987 by a guy who sat down at his Sun workstation one day at the office and wrote the whole thing in one shot – using the vi editor! And it looks like it; it was not ahead of its time, not even by microseconds. TWM is still released with every copy of the Unix X Window system, as a default or fall-back option, which pretty much makes it standard throughout GNU, Linux, BSD, and Open Solaris. Or you can emulate it yourself using an old copy of Windows Paint… and not miss much.
CDE, the Common Desktop Environment, Motif-based and encountered along about the 90’s in weird places like Solaris, AIX, and VMS. This screen shot is taken from the FVWM window manager, which has a pretty faithful CDE theme. In fact, FVWM (only available for Unix-like systems) almost serves as a desktop emulation machine in its own right, with themes that are actually emulators for everything from classic Windows 95 to Blackbox.
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- Vintage Computing – part 3
- Vintage Gaming – part five: the miscellaneous part…
- Vintage Computing – part 2
- An Overview of Wine for Linux
- Are Apple and Linux Allies?