Need: Stealth Serial Port for Power Macintosh G4

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting obscure or discontinued technology products I would like to acquire for the vintage Mac lab.

As the years go by, I realize that after I’ve exhausted Google and eBay trying to acquire an obscure item I need, if nothing turns up available it’s easy to forget all the details when I want to try again later. That’s where these notes come in.

Furthermore, in the off chance you the reader should stumble across this post and have one to offer, well all the better for using the blog. Please contact me if you have one of these you’d like to sell!

Product: Stealth Serial Port for Power Macintosh G4 – Universal Model
Company: GeeThree Software, LLC
Status: Discontinued/Sold Out

Here is a screenshot with the product details just in case the site or company vanishes in the coming years:


Use Case: I’m trying to see if I can move the LocalTalk Bridge and IPNetRouter system from a Quadra 700 over to a PowerMac G4. The G4’s have built-in Ethernet but do not have a serial port for LocalTalk.

There would be several advantages to the G4 over the Quadra, chief among them is just the elimination of an additional server since I already have to run a G4 for the AppleShare file sharing chain from System 6 and 7 machines; to the G4 with OS9; to another G4 with OS X 10.5 Leopard; to the modern network (the subject of a future post).

You have got to be kidding me. I purchased a movie from the iTunes Store. I want to play it on my authorized Mac computer using iTunes. When I go to display it on my Apple Cinema display monitor, it get the above message preventing me from playing it. If I drag iTunes to my second monitor (non-Apple brand, and not in the best movie viewing position mind you), it works fine. Absolutely ridiculous.

Steve Jobs Playboy Interview from 1985

Steve Jobs Playboy Interview from 1985

A New Addition to the Family

After another prompt delivery of an obscure CMOS battery from Battery Bob, the latest addition to my vintage Macintosh collection is a nearly pristine Mac Plus. Why another Mac Plus you say? Well, I suppose it’s the same reason Howard Hughes would purchase an new airplane then do all his flying in a leased one while keeping the original untouched in a hanger–now I can actually use one without any fear that I might burn it out, if I do, I still have my original in working order.

Thanks to my LocalTalk-to-Ethernet bridge and virtual WindowsNT server running an AppleTalk share, I can actually use this Plus (affectionately named the Mac Minus) for real work. In fact, I’m composing this blog entry using TeachText and saving it through my nifty bridged network to the MacPro for posting.

The keyboard is a bit clunky and the screen has a noticeable flicker (unlike the now seemly luxurious 28 inch LCD monitor next to it), but with no fan or hard drive, it’s perfectly silent (save the knocking of the giant keys). And it’s a pleasure to use. That is if you find a 9 inch black and white screen to be nostalgic.

It’s amazing what you take for granted in life. Using a vintage system like this is not only satisfying, but it reminds you how nice a modern computer really is: the bright screen, ample real estate, gorgeous chrome, and snappy responsiveness.  It’s like when we return home from a trip in the Airstream. When living in the trailer, your needs are met and you’re not really wanting in any way. It’s when you get home, you realize how big your rooms actually are and how much luxury you really live in.

Go find something old and use it again. It will make you happy.

Surfing the Web on a Vintage Mac Plus

After some serious tinkering, I was finally able to get my original Mac Plus (cira 1986) to surf the web natively. No cheating, no terminal emulation. Just a real web browser running in System 6 accessing the live internet.

Here’s what the System 6 Heaven webpage looks like on the Plus:

Mac Plus Surfing Web, 2010
Mac Plus Surfing Web, 2010

That’s not just a text file!  It’s actually MacWWW, an early web browser (circa 1992) that can run on System 6.  For comparison, here is the same webpage in Safari 5: <Photo Missing>

How did I do it?

Well, it was a little tricky since the Mac Plus and System 6 were built before the web, web browsers, home Ethernet LANs and always-on broadband Internet connections were common place (or in some cases even invented). Macs of that time communicated using AppleTalk over LocalTalk networks, both of which are obsolete and no longer even supported by contemporary Mac OS X.

First, I acquired a Quadra 700 for the lab (circa 1992), sort of the Mac Pro of it’s day, since it has ports that support both LocalTalk and Ethernet (using a proprietary Apple AAUI adapter, yes another trip to eBay) and can run System 7. After getting it working on both the modern Ethernet LAN and the vintage LocalTalk network with the Plus on it, the next step was to bridge the two networks using Apple’s (now freely available) LocalTalk Bridge software (the trick being to remember it will always use your printer port for LocalTalk!).

With that in place and working, I could now use AppleTalk file sharing across both networks to easily move all the vintage software around that I needed on the respective systems. It also occurred to me that I should back all this up, given the age of the hard drives and floppy disks, so after exploring open source alternatives like FreeNAS (and learning the vagaries of which versions of AppleTalk are supported by which OSes), I resorted to bringing up a virtual Windows NT 4 Server (cira 1994) with Services for Macintosh. It gave me quite the chuckle that I had to use a Microsoft product to pull this off.

Lastly, I made a clean System 6 install on the Mac Plus and added MacTCP but still needed to get TCP/IP routed over LocalTalk and the bridge on the Quadra. For that, I found IPNetRouter and these instructions which quite frankly required some serious trial and error (the trick there being while you set the bridging machine address as the gateway on the LocalTalk devices, you have to use a real DNS server address).

After some patient tinkering, and many disappointing pings on the Mac Plus, I got it working and fired up MacWWW to find a webpage with no graphics, JavaScript, CSS, Flash, embedded media, or just about any modern element we take for granted. You see the results in the pictures above.

Why did I do it?

Just to see if I could I suppose.

Both my Mac Plus and the early web played an important part in my life and the beginning of my career. I can still recall when NCSA Mosaic was first installed in the university computer lab–after just being told during orientation that most of us would work in jobs that hadn’t been invented yet (which has held true for me).  And aside from a brief (and shameful) period during the late 90’s, I’ve always had a Mac.

I had wanted to do this for some time, but it wasn’t until my recent focus on some other vintage technology projects that I got serious. My next task is to get a solid SSH client working on the vintage machines (perhaps for retro Twitter), as well as virtualizing each of them in emulators on my modern systems (so they can live in perpetuity).

Anyone up for a game of Bolo?

Why I Didn’t Buy an iPad (Yet)

So I went to the store. I held one in my hand. And I didn’t buy it. I surprised my wife, and impressed myself. I figured by the time I actually saw it in person, I would have passed the event horizon and surely have brought one home. Yes, it helped that the 64GB models had been sold out, but I could have found one at another nearby location if I really wanted to.

Why didn’t I buy it?

1.  I need a multi-user device. Yes, I know if Apple allows for that, families would buy less iPads, since everyone currently needs their own. Well, this family didn’t buy any because of it. I’m not about to have my baby daughter (who’s grown up using an iPhone touch screen), playing her games, watching family videos, and then sending random tweets or composing gibberish emails to my boss from my account. If it could support multiple user accounts, I’d buy it.

2.  I like to write and draw. Multi-touch is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but for me to carry the iPad to meetings and take notes, I need to be able to write and draw on it, with the precision of a stylus. If it could replace a paper notebook, I’d buy it.

3.  I’m focused on content production. While I consume content, I don’t need another screen to do so. Yes, the experience is very elegant, and if I was in to luxury or had to travel frequently, I would have bought it. Same for the MacBook Air a couple years ago. But luckily for my wife, I’m a little too conservative for that. If the device could sit on a desktop easel and take a wireless keyboard and mouse (thus replacing my laptop), I’d buy it.

4.  Lastly, there was no killer app for me. So far, everything I would want to do on an iPad I can do on an iPhone, just with a small screen. Check/compose email, use Twitter, play a couple games, or watch movies in bed or on a plane. The on-screen keyboard is bigger, but not tremendously easier to use. If an app comes out that I simply must have, then I’d buy it.

So for now, I’ll stay on the sidelines observing how the apps evolve and if any of my use cases above will be supported. I’ll just have to make due with my iPhone, MacBook, Mac Pro, iMac, AppleTV and the MacBook Pro at work.

Mac Plus Emulation & HyperCard on Mac Pro

You’ll always remember your first. For me, it was a Mac Plus. Purchased by my parents as a family Christmas gift in the mid-eighties, it later ended up in my room and quickly became the center of my universe.

The killer app for me was always HyperCard. Of course at the time I had no idea how prescient that experience would be, since the hypertext driven world wide web did not exist yet nor did my resulting career.

While’s I’ve kept that original Mac in working order (including the original 20MB external hard drive), at some point parts are bound to fail and my trips down memory lane will be over (especially attacking conveys in the Pacific).

Enter Mini vMac, a Mac Plus emulator for modern computers. Now assuming I can successfully migrate the contents of that SCSI hard drive (connected to a computer with LocalTalk but no TCP/IP networking) to the disk image running in the emulator, my Mac Plus can live on indefinitely (that is until 10 years from now when I’m emulating Mac OS X to run the Mac Plus emulator).

It’s only took a couple of hours to get cooking. Notice the top (black and white window) is actually the Mac Plus (running a HyperCard stack I created in the early 90’s), with the purple window being VNC giving me access to the desktop of a headless G4 running OS 9 (for the SetFType utility that does not run on Intel Macs), then some OS X finder windows with access to the G4 shared drive to move the disk images back and forth, and of course Safari with the emulator site.

Note how much more real estate I get to use these days compared to the original 9 inch screen. It really is amazing when you step back and think about it.

Following a fresh install of System 6.0.8 from Apple, I had success! Welcome back Larry, John, Steve and Bruce. Mounting disks is easy, just drag them onto the emulated screen and they mount. Don’t have to worry about only having one floppy drive!

And for those a little more curious, back in my early teens I developed several HyperCard projects, including this piece of shareware that generated random yet pronounceable words (perfect for passwords) based on a consonant/vowel/number structure you could customize.

I’ve toyed with the idea of getting the physical Mac Plus onto the internet via a LocalTalk to Ethernet bridge, or perhaps just getting the SCSI hard drive accessible via some kind of adapter to Firewire. I’d be curious if anyone else has undergone a similar effort–let me know. In the meantime, I’m off to sink a convoy!

It can be a challenge to get your iPhone, or any cellphone for that matter, to ring like an actual phone (unless you’re into the whole music ringtone thing, in which case you ignore the rest of this).

Some time ago, I discovered you can find that pleasant ringtone used in the Apple’s iPhone commercials on your iLife-enabled Mac here: <audio missing>

Then follow these instructions to build the tone in Garageband and share it in iTunes, then your phone. Voila! Problem solved in two minutes flat.

That worked until I started watching HBO’s Entourage, where every time Eric’s cellphone rings in show (this happens frequently), I reach for mine. It’s annoying. Well, not as annoying as Ari calling me I suppose.

Anyhow, that forced me to choose between the show and my ringtone–the show won. So, I came across some other good basic tones to give myself other options. I’m still looking for that perfect generic and unique specimen.

AppleTV is Almost There

I love movies. With a growing family and career on overdrive however, I don’t get to see many these days. There’s a swank new theatre in town that serves booze and has reserved seats, but it might as well be a figment of my imagination.

I loath mindless TV. I dropped cable service for good a few years back and honestly don’t miss it. Well, the occasional ballgame would be nice but it’s an acceptable loss. And with the exception of another historic event (such as 9/11 or the moon landings), the web blows away TV for concise and directed news consumption.

Enter AppleTV. First, in full disclosure, there are some who call me an Apple fanboy. I prefer to think of myself as a connoisseur of fine things and an admirer of Steve Jobs, but I’ll admit Apple’s marketing has me zeroed like a German 88 on a Normandy crossroads (yes, we’ve been watching Band of Brothers again).

I purchased it on a bit of a lark, and was frankly not very impressed for the first few months. It wasn’t until their 2.0 software update and some experimentation running Boxee as hack that I began to think more about the device.

It’s first big win came from an unlikely place, the screensaver. The default setting (assuming you choose to sync your photos to it) is to display all of your photos in a subtle but engaging stream across the screen. Intellectually that doesn’t sound so cool, but if you keep photos from your whole life in there, watching events from different corners of your life really makes it a stream of memories. There have been several occasions with guests were we simply sit and watch it. Sometimes for more than an hour. Great reminders.

Since there are 3 iPhones in the house, the free Remote app (iTunes link) that lets you control the AppleTV (and any other shared iTunes library) via WiFi connection was a brilliant addition. It’s great for wowing guests in the demo or lowering the volume of Johnny Cash during a late night poker game.

The next step was the death (due to old age) of my all-in-one DVD player / surround sound system. Having just invested a small fortune in baby resistant living room furniture, I was in no mood to spend even $100 to replace the device. It’s rare I actually watch a physical disc these days, as I love the convenience of having my collection in iTunes and independent of the screen. For now, no actual disc player hooked to the TV.

So now the only competition for our AppleTV comes from the Roku device that sits next to it, solely for the Netflix streaming (and maybe next year for to scratch that ballgame itch).  I’d like to see the next AppleTV update include streaming from say Hulu. Can’t we all get along? Live sports and breaking news, even as content subscriptions, would be intriguing.  RSS and Twitter would be nice to throw up on the big screen, maybe as part of the screensaver.

Lastly, the biggest improvement will come from the network, not the device. Just as AT&T turns off potential iPhone converts and frustrates the faithful, Time Warner’s 1.5 down (on a good day) simply doesn’t cut it for spur the moment movie rentals or anything in HD. You basically have to make your choice well before dinner or the night before. I’ve heard about the mythical Verizon FiOS, but alas not a soul at that company can tell me when it will be available in my neighborhood. Why is that such a secret?

While I realize it’s just a hobby for Apple, I hope it gets upgraded to full fledged side business. It’s good lemonade.