Monday, August 4, 2014

And now for something completely different: Rhapsody revisited (to go)

My favourite Mac laptop of all time remains the PowerBook 1400, the first laptop I ever owned (I don't count the Commodore SX-64, which would be more likely to damage your lap) and my faithful companion for about five years as a hand-me-down from my brother-in-law, who had recently bought a snow iBook G3 and said that if I could fix the 1400, I could keep it. It turned out to need a new inverter board and LCD, so I just bought a whole new top case for $140 and his 1400c/117 lived again. Since then it picked up an Ethernet card (Nate had already installed a modem card), a new battery, an 8-bit video out card, a full 64MB complement of memory (supplemented by RAM Doubler), a 4GB hard disk and a 333MHz G3 and later a 466MHz G3 CPU board. I eventually transplanted most of it to a new logic board when the old one got flaky, and this reincarnated version still works great where it gets lots of weird looks at the local coffee shop because I put biohazard stickers on the clear cover. The 1400 has the best keyboard of any Mac laptop ever made, the highest marks for modularity and upgradability, and who doesn't like installing a different cover to match your mood?

(By the way, the only major upgrade I'm missing for it is the hard-to-find solar cover, which I've sought for years. If you've got one and your 1400 is dying a slow moldy death in a closet, send me an E-mail. I'm willing to deal.)

Evolutionarily, though, the NuBus architecture in the 1400 made it a dead end and I jumped directly from there to an iBook G4, so I never got to try anything between 9.1 and 10.4 on the road; in fact, I didn't move to OS X until the Jaguar days when I bought the last of the MDDs so I could still boot OS 9. (Ironically, I wound up with Nate's iBook G3 too. It's in a bag waiting for a new backlight.) I never really got to play with Rhapsody back in the day, and when I found a set of Mac OS X Server v1.2 CDs on sale, I knew I had a use for another PowerBook I'd picked up along the way: a PowerBook G3 Wallstreet II, also known as the PDQ.

This one was a university castoff from up in the Bay Area, where it was ending its days acting as a sync station for a Newton that had long since found another home. It was quietly leaked to me, where I refurbished it, cleaned up the case, got it a RAM upgrade and a new battery, and then put it in the closet and forgot about it until I discovered the Wally G3 was the best portable Rhapsody workstation ever made. Consider: it's bootable (hardly guaranteed with Rhapsody), it supports 24-bit colour at 1024x768, and it supports all the standard internal devices that Rhapsody did, including the optical drive and network. Previous G3 PowerBooks (and the 2400c, 3400c and clamshell iBook) only run at 800x600, and not only does the Lombard only work at 256 colours, you have to swap optical drives to get it to install and discs to mount if you have a DVD-ROM unit. And you can forget about the Pismo or any G4 PowerBook -- it won't boot at all.

Rhapsody really is the closest thing to pure NeXTStep that ever ran on a PowerPC-based computer (NeXT never ported it to the Power Mac back in the day), but as you can see from the screen shot (besides the 2014 date which I swear is not Photoshopped; the OS apparently puts the current year in the copyright string) it does so with a not-quite-100% veneer of Platinum. I say it's not 100% because it puts a dot in the close gadget when a window is dirty, like NeXTStep and OS X both do but OS 9 never did; there is no true Finder in the Classic sense (certainly not the lovely spatial one we loved); and their Charcoal font has some peculiarities from the nice regular version in the real OS 9. But it makes the OS seem so clean and beautiful that I can almost forgive the ugly huge desktop icons.

Having a mobile Rhapsody is great from a computing archaeology perspective. I don't have to dedicate a seat to it and I can throw it on a project table if I want to work with it. I theorize that the Apple developers wanted to do their work on a laptop too and snuck partial support in so that they could, and at least with respect to Rhapsody 5.6 (v1.2), it works well enough for that purpose.

It hasn't aged completely well, though. Some older file archive sites have Rhapsody-compatible software, but there's not a lot of it. OmniWeb 3 is appallingly old by modern web standards, mostly Netscape Communicator 4-era in terms of what it supports (no CSS of any kind), and the only compiler is Apple's hacked gcc -- which doesn't build modern Cocoa software because not all the libraries are there, and doesn't build old Carbon software because Rhapsody doesn't have Carbon! Classilla does run ... but only within the Blue Box emulation layer, which is both better and worse than Classic. It's better in that it's incredibly fast compared to the double-buffered Classic of 10.3 and 10.4, almost native speed, but worse in that it is extremely badly integrated into the OS, can only run up to 8.6, and only runs full screen (although this may be partially why screen updates are so speedy -- it doesn't have to composite any windows). While I wanted to do more with Rhapsody, I found I was spending most of my time in the Blue Box, so I ended up repartitioning the hard disk so I had a 9.2.2 partition on it as well, and the default Blue Box disk image was too small, so I ended up copying it to the 7300 and having Disk Copy make it larger. (No, you can't do this in Rhapsody itself. WTF. Though having the whole of the Blue Box environment in a disk image is very convenient for backups.)

Which leads me to some annoyances about a portable Rhapsody installation specifically. First, there's no power management. The CPU runs full speed, no throttling, no cycling. There's no battery gadget for you to monitor how much time you have left (I'm sure there must be a way to check the battery through the I/O system, but I haven't found it yet). If you close the lid, the machine doesn't sleep, because there's no sleep support of any kind: you're either fully powered up or fully powered down. That's it.

If the battery runs out, and like most PowerBooks of this age the PRAM battery doesn't hold much of a charge anymore, I found out the hard way that Rhapsody becomes unbootable (more accurately, PRAM gets whacked, and the first-stage bootloader is not a normal "Toolbox-style" Open Firmware booter, so the Mac fails to start the operating system). Fortunately, OS 9.2.2 can fix this. When I set it up to dual-boot, and the original battery was flat, it automatically started OS 9. I rebooted it once (if you don't do this, Startup Disk will hang) and went to the Startup Disk control panel, and it saw the Rhapsody partition and offered it as a choice. Whew! You can force the Rhapsody bootloader to boot something else by holding Option down as you power on the machine, by the way, and Rhapsody will see the OS 9 partition (just not vice versa except as a startup choice). It's interesting how dependent Rhapsody is upon Mac OS 9 to be fully functional, just like 10.0 and 10.1 were.

There are also some other general annoyances with Rhapsody as a daily driver besides the dearth of software. In addition to the default Blue Box image being too damn small (after you run it for the first time, copy it from /Local/Library/MacOS/Users/your user name/StartupDisk.img to your OS 9 partition and let Disk Copy enlarge it; here are some tips on that), if you leave a CD in the optical drive when the machine boots, then you have to be root to eject it. This led to a lot of cussing until I figured out what was going on, which was worsened by the weird way the OS handles volumes (/Local?) and sometimes keeps ghosts of them around. And while the detachable menus are neat, they have a habit of detaching rather easily; fortunately Apple ditched this for the OS X Public Beta.

But Rhapsody was revolutionary at the time, and I can see why. It almost promised a nearly seamless transition from the Classic age to the NeXT one, even with the same skin and basic appearance. It would be hard for me to work in it compared to OS 9, let alone Tiger, and I really need to do something about that compiler, at least, but now I've got a little Rhapsody to go when my curiosity gets piqued and I can enjoy what might have been any time I want. So here's to you, Wally. Job well done.

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