Tuesday, November 23, 2004

TECHNONEWS: The Upgrade Cascade

Where have I been lately? Cursing computers and blessing NaNoWriMo, which has once again proved astonishingly helpful in unexpected ways.

Sometime in late September, the Lombard breathed its last. (Bad processor. Not worth fixing.) After trying alternatives for a month, I admitted that a new laptop wasn't a luxury, but a necessity. During the period of waiting, Apple came out with hot new iBooks. My new computer arrived 2 weeks ago, and I love it. G4, 1.2 MHz processor, 768 MB RAM, 30-gig hard drive, running OS X 10.3.3, also known as Panther. Built-in CD-writer and Airport card. Truly lovely.

One reason I put off getting Mac OS X for so many years was my fear of The Upgrade Cascade — the long, tumbling series of changes that must be made whenever you upgrade operating systems. It's expensive, time-consuming, and often frustrating.

It wasn't so bad with the various versions of Mac Classic: I'm still running some software on 9.2.2 that I originally bought or downloaded ten years ago for 7.6. Unfortunately, that tends to be simple game software—UltraDice, Solitaire Antics, Shanghai II. The more complicated software by which I earn my living always seems to demand the latest, most expensive innovations.

The last time I had an Upgrade Cascade was back in the fall of 1996, when I bought the Okidata 810e printer, a workhouse laser printer that I absolutely loved. Unfortunately, PageMaker 4.0 (the backbone of my business) wouldn't recognize the printer. Upgrade to PageMaker 6.5. PageMaker 6.5 wouldn't work with the older operating system. Upgrade to OS 8.1. My old version of Word (2.0, I believe) wouldn't work with OS 8.1. Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. I spent a solid two weeks and a fair bit of money installing, updating, re-saving documents in new format, and learning the new software.

Life has been fairly eventful since then, so I did everything I could to freeze the computing world at 1999 or so. The desktop is a beige G3 running System 8.6 with 2 whole gigs of hard drive and 128MB of RAM, and with one USB 1.1 port. My lovely Lombard laptop ran 9.2.2. The printer worked with the desktop. Files from the desktop could be saved to Zip disk and copied to the laptop, and vice versa.

Like all sneakernet systems, it had its limitations. The laptop had Internet access, but the desktop does not, so I couldn't directly email myself files. The desktop would write to floppies, but the laptop had no floppy drive. I had to copy the files to a Windows machine and email them to myself. But for a few years I had a system that functioned.

Now, of course, I'm dealing with an OS that is not backward compatible at all. Moreover, hardware protocols have changed completely. Gone are the 9-pin printer cables, the ADB keyboard connectors, the SCSI ports. The new laptop has USB 2.0 and Firewire ports.

When the Lombard died, I had the tech guy transplant the hard drive into a USB enclosure. It worked fine with the G3 loaner laptop I had for NaNoWriMo (and which was donated to the laptop library by Karen Toensfeldt, a friend of mine from the South Bay NaNoWriters). Alas, the iBook couldn’t even see the drive; a techie friend fixed that by plugging both USB connectors of the Y-shaped cable into the laptop. I thought my troubles were over. (I also thought I was an idiot, but never mind that.)

Then I would start to transfer files, and after two or three, the laptop would crash. Apparently, the notoriously chipset-sensitive Panther OS doesn’t care for this particular USB manufacturer. Finally I realized I could transfer the files to the loaner laptop, hook it to the iBook with a firewire cable, and start it in target mode. This worked. Sunday night Alan Bostick came over with a firewire cable. You should have heard me crowing as the megabytes sped into the new iBook. My brain was coming back!

The process isn’t over. I need to install 9.2.2 on the iBook so I can run some of the older software in Classic mode. Also, I have ten years worth of backups on Zip disks, which apparently commit suicide when they see OS X. So I’m going to upgrade the desktop to 9.2.2, which will allow the desktop to see the hard drive. I’m going to copy all those damned Zip disks onto the hard drive and run them through the loaner laptop. Can’t link the iBook directly with the beige G3—no firewire port. Then I am going to burn every bit of essential data to CDs, see if I can trade the USB case for a combined USB/firewire enclosure, and use the 10-gigabyte hard drive as extra memory for the desktop.

And then I’m going to take a nap.

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