Sunday, August 26, 2012

How To Insult While Advertising.

Microsoft's demonstration of Internet Explorer 9 on the Web uses a Web site that insults users of Macintosh systems by throwing up what they claim is a tweet from an unknown/undisclosed source:

In case you cannot read it, it says, "Contemplating buying a non-Mac, just so that I can have IE9—tweet".

To tell people that they should go and buy a whole new system just to demonstrate what Internet Explorer 9 should be able to do with HTML 5 code is just plain offensive to me. If Internet Explorer 9 is indeed a standards-compliant browser, and HTML 5 is the markup that it is expected to read, then that should be enough to demonstrate to users of other browsers and systems most of what Internet Explorer 9 can do... for the specific areas of Internet Explorer 9 that other browsers can't do, offer them a caption, some more information, or even simulation. Don't insult users with "go buy a PC with Windows and try this yourself", because chances are, people just won't.

I do realise, though, that the whole point of Beauty Of the Web is to showcase Internet Explorer 9, and only that product. But couldn't Microsoft do that in a way that is actually accommodating to non-IE users, rather than intimidating and condescending to otherwise potential customers? Don't Microsoft realise that Mac users aren't limited to using just OS X for all their computing needs?

It's amazing how Microsoft can shoot itself in the foot over and over again with careless attitudes such as this.

Incidentally, Linux users aren't insulted in the same way Mac users are:

If that is not a direct offensive towards Mac users, I don't know what is.


—tonza

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Using Old Macs to Surf the Modern Web.

I have been fortunate enough to construct a setup that involves one of the last 68000-based Macs, connected to one of the second-generation PowerPC-based Macs, both manufactured in 1995, in order for both machines to be able to surf the Web, all in pursuit of answering the one question: can both of these machines, with their limited capacities and the latest software at their disposal, actually be useful enough to navigate Web sites, and what would it take to do that?

The answer is not so clear cut, but it reduces down to, "they can, if you are fortunate enough." A combination of available memory and whether the browser they run can actually render the Web pages they download will be the two most influential factors in whether these old Macs are useful enough to be able to browse around on the Web.

Both my retro Macs run Mac OS—the 68K-based Mac runs Mac OS 7.6, while the PowerPC-based Mac runs Mac OS 9.1. It is a fairly safe assumption to make that the amount of available memory will severely impact on what browsers can do; the 68K machine, being a rather small one, isn't able to provide the memory capacity than the PowerPC machine can.

To add to the 68K machine's woes, virtual memory as implemented in System 7 is not exactly a speed demon, and on 68K machines with limited physical memory as well as a slower processor, the performance of virtual memory is an order of magnitude worse than on PowerPC. To top it all off, 68K Macs of the LC class often come with small internal hard disk drives, so I had no options beyond leaving virtual memory off because the internal disk was already full. On the other hand, the PowerPC Mac has ample memory, disk space and CPU grunt, so I enabled virtual memory on that machine, giving it a head start over the 68K Mac.

Both machines run Internet Explorer for the Mac. This is a conscious, deliberate decision, not because I don't like using Netscape Communicator, but because Internet Explorer is actually the smaller and the more compliant of the two browser platforms (particularly, with CSS2 and PNG image support, and with a much tighter level of integration with Mac OS itself). Additionally, there was no way I could squeeze Netscape Communicator onto the 68K Mac with what I had on it already, so Internet Explorer would have to do. I have tried Netscape Communicator on the PowerPC Mac, though, and it suffers from the same kinds of problems as Internet Explorer anyway, as I will demonstrate later. So in the end, it made no sense to spend that kind of space on a browser that would not prove more useful than the other anyway.

In short, the biggest problem that an antique browser would have reading from the latest sites on the 'Net is its ability to execute the abundant amounts of JavaScript without crashing. JavaScript resilience is woeful on Mac OS, no matter how you slice it. Granted, the amount of JavaScript that modern Web sites tend to throw at a browser can tally up into the megabytes, and that may surely push the JavaScript runtime into some internal limits or expose implementation bugs that hit it hard.

The next problem is the sheer size of the final rendered pages from even the simplest of sites, such as Groklaw, Wikipedia, and even Daring Fireball. Small HTML documents that can fit on an 800K floppy can result in a final rendering that accounts to megabytes of memory space, according to the memory meters in the "About This Computer..." dialogue window. Often, the memory congestion is so bad on a 68K Mac that Internet Explorer risks crashing or hanging the machine. In order to conserve memory, disabling the displaying of images may help, but often, the browser is smart enough to not load an image if it can find out that there is not enough space to load it in. I would tend to disable it anyway, as the option to load an image one by one is always there should there be a need for it.

When starting a browsing session, the first page usually loads fine, but subsequent pages send the Mac closer and closer to death due to fragmented memory, in which the computer tries to consolidate memory blocks until there is no free memory in a large enough contiguous block left to satisfy requests. If the Web pages are small enough, the Mac can cheat death for several more pages over a substantial period of time, but with the sheer size of Web sites offered today, it's hard to find pages which the Mac can digest without running into memory trouble.

Lastly, and this is really the fault of the browsers more than anything, I find that CSS is not handled very well against newer Web sites that use directives and values that the old browsers have never even heard of. Style sheets cause a variety of rendering and implementation failures to the point where the browsers won't last more than five minutes without sending the Macs to their deaths. Today's modern and quite elaborate CSS3 standards are definitely intolerable on old-school Web browsers; CSS support needs to be disabled just for ensuring that your Mac has a fair chance of surviving the ordeal. Besides, on those rare occasions where you arrive at a Web page that has been rendered successfully, your rewards are most likely met with a physical display so small that you'd be required to scroll around most Web sites just to read them—old 68K Macs didn't come with colour monitors larger than 13 inches back in those days. Free-flowing text in automatically resizable boxes was the principle of electronic documentation by HTML markup—nowadays, with the influences of the prepress industry and graphic design, Web sites have entered into the world of on-line application design and static absolute presentation with such a force that the convenience of annotated text is anything but remembered. As a result, reading from such Web sites is an unbearably slow and cumbersome experience because of the amount of scrolling one has to perform just to view an electronic page from an on-line magazine.

The PowerPC Mac had a better chance of succeeding the onslaught of modern Web sites, but the limitations of JavaScript and CSS still apply. If there is anything to be gained in using a PowerPC Mac for surfing the Web, there's the ability to play QuickTime movies (if you find any nowadays!) in full colour on larger monitors... or your machine will crash faster, shortening the time you have to agonise over rebooting your Mac.

If you really want to try unleashing your old machine onto today's network, it is best to get your Web browser to load up as little of the Web as possible—go to the application's preferences and deselect as many options as you can for loading style sheets, images, Java, JavaScript, plug-ins, ColorSync, and any other technology that would consume memory or complicate the browser's rendering process. Gradually up the options as you find how well your machine can cope, but I would think that automatic image loading is the only option you will want to enable, since that option doesn't use technology that may have been revised and improved over the last 20 years!

After considering the data capacities and incompatibilities that my old Macs may have to be protected against when visiting modern Web sites, and with so much information and presentation being removed from Web pages as a result, I found that browsing the Web with an old machine is not something I'd like to do on an every-day basis. And even then, unless I happen to have a machine that has at least 512 MB of memory (and a fast network interface), my machines will find the Web so large that they just won't cope with the load. It may be time to concede that today's Web has well and truly outgrown my old Macs.

The Macs described in this article are a Macintosh LC 575 with 20 MB of physical memory and running Mac OS 7.6, and a Power Macintosh 7500/100 with a 200 MHz PowerPC 604e Upgrade Card, 384 MB of physical memory, and running Mac OS 9.1.

Article last updated on the 20th August: revised for readability and clarity.


—tonza

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