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More Old Tech

Following on from my previous blog entry I want to say a bit more about old technology. One of the nice things about modern computers is how they can easily emulate other hardware and operating systems. The most familiar case of this for Mac users is PC emulation programs like Parallels and VMWare Fusion which allow Macs to run Windows or Linux at the same time as they run Mac OS X. But there are many other emulators out there which allow other systems to be run as well.

I’m currently converting two old programs, which I first wrote in the late 1980s, to run on modern machines. Actually, I’m writing them from the start because there was nothing worth salvaging in the old ones. But I wanted to see what functions the old programs had so I needed some way to run them on my modern Mac. Apple dropped the Classic environment when they released Mac OS X 10.5 so I needed something else.

First I tried a simple program called “Mini vMac”. It turns your modern Mac into a Mac Plus. That was a bit older than what I really needed but I already had it installed so I tried it. Well after starting up a pile of really old software (MacPaint, etc) I remembered why I was there and tried to get the programs running but the Mac Plus was just a bit old for what I wanted.

So the next thing I tried was something called “Sheep Shaver” (don’t ask me why its called that – weirdest name since “Chicken on the VNC” in my opinion). It took a bit of setting up (I had to get some Mac ROM code and a Mac OS 9 install CD) but eventually I got it working and it goes quite well. So that’s the emulation software I will use to test my older programs.

But while I was playing with emulators I thought I would try a real classic: Virtual ][ which is a program which emulates the Apple II. Now that is really going back to the late 70s and early 80s, the dawn of the personal computer revolution.

I found a pile of old Apple II software and games (I used to program it, and the Apple III in my first programming job) and had a lot of fun with that as well. I notice there are emulators for a lot of other older computers too, including the Commodore 64 and Atari 800 so I must try those some time, just as a sort of nostalgia trip to the time when I used to play with them.

One of the amazing things about these emulators is how fast they are. Even though they have to translate the code for the original processor (PowerPC, 6502, etc) into code for the Intel processor used in modern Macs they still absolutely fly. I remember the original Macs used to take a minute or two to boot from their floppy drives. In the emulator you press the key to boot and the machine is already running before you can take your finger off the key! Its that quick!

So the performance improvements I talked about in my last blog entry are obviously true but most of the extra power has been absorbed by modern operating systems and software so we often don’t notice it. Its worth it of course, because what we can do now would have seemed impossible back then. Last night I was running Mac OS X, Windows, Mac OS 9, System 5, and Apple DOS all at the same time while listening to music and browsing the web. back in the day of the Apple II it would have taken about 30 floppy disks just to store one MP3 file!

Still, I do remember having lots of fun playing with the Apple II. And I don’t just mean playing games, I also mean programming it (in BASIC, Pascal and machine code) and doing other geeky things which were so much easier on that simple architecture. And I do remember spending a lot of time playing games. When I first got Wizardry for the Apple II I played for about 40 hours non stop!

But when you think back about how much fun those old games used to be you shouldn’t let nostalgia for the good old days blind you. When I tried running these old games now I found them all rather boring: the graphics were terrible, the sound hideous, and the gameplay fairly simplistic. I think I made a mistake playing them because the memory definitely was better than the reality!

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