Apple Silicon and losing our legacy

[Edit] This post sparked a conversation on Ycombinator!

I am concerned about Apple’s move to its own home-grown processors.

It’s not because I’m worried about the new silicon, or Apple’s ability to make high-performance CPUs, or even because I am worried about changing architectures. I survived the move from Motorola 68K processors to PowerPC, and PowerPC to Intel.

I’m still using High Sierra on my 2016 MacBook Pro. I still have legacy 32-bit software I use professionally, and I also boot this computer into Windows with Boot Camp to play games like Fallout 4 and Witcher 3 that won’t run in Parallels.

I am concerned about the switch to Apple Silicon because I’m worried about what it means to archivists and historians.

I understand why Apple is doing it. I get it, I do. But I’m really worried about what it means to the legacy of the late 20th century.

Desktop publishing revolutionized human communication. It’s hard to overstate what a Big Deal desktop publishing was. It arguably democratized communication more than any other invention since the printing press. It fueled an explosion of creativity and led to a boom in the underground ‘zine scene.

PageMaker, the first DTP software, revolutionized entire industries…plural. Overnight the entire publishing community moved to it.

And, of course, mergers and acquisitions happened as the disruption shook itself out. Aldus, the startup that created PageMaker, got swallowed by Adobe. Quark arose to compete, and a lot of the industry jumped ship, since QuarkXPress was objectively better. Then Adobe created a new program, InDesign, which was objectively better than QuarkXPress, and the industry moved on. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work, right?

But here’s the thing:

A vast chunk of the history of desktop publishing, including countless underground ’zines of significant cultural and historical value, are still tied up in old files. Old files that can still be accessed, albeit with difficulty.

InDesign CS6 can open PageMaker and QuarkXPress documents. Later versions dropped the ability to open PageMaker files.

Old Mac emulators like SheepShaver can open even older files, by running ancient PowerPC apps directly. I recently rescued a bunch of old ‘zines I published in the early 90s this way.

But a window is closing.

It’s starting to close even without the move to Apple Silicon. When I set up a SheepShaver PowerPC Mac emulator to install the software to rescue these files, one of the pieces of software tried to contact activation servers that went offline in 1999. I had to do a bit of hacking to get the software to install.

I opened PageMaker 4 files in PageMaker 6, opened the PageMaker 6 files in InDesign CS6, and opened the InDesign CS6 files in InDesign 2020.

I opened Macromedia Freehand files in Freehand, saved them as EPS, opened the EPS files in Illustrator 6, saved them, and opened them in Illustrator 2020.

Now here it gets tricky.

InDesign CS6, the last modern app that can read a PageMaker file, won’t run on new versions of macOS because it’s 32-bit only.

It won’t run in emulators like SheepShaver because it’s OS X only.

SheepShaver and InDesign CS6 both won’t run on Apple Silicon.

We are on the cusp of losing the ability to open PageMaker files completely.

In a perfect world, someone would write a Mac emulator that lets you emulate a High Sierra Mac on Apple Silicon hardware, just like SheepShaver lets you emulate a PowerPC Mac on Intel hardware. If you can bring old software and old emulators with you, those people—historians, digital archivists, and the like—can, with enough faffing, still recover the rich legacy of information from the early days of desktop publishing.

But for various arcane technical reasons, writing an emulator for x86–64 on ARM is a huge undertaking, something beyond what an open source project is likely to do. I honestly don’t see the open source community writing a Mac emulator that will run High Sierra on Apple Silicon. Emulating x86 on ARM is an enormous project, one that requires a well-resources company to do.

A company like…Apple.

It turns out Apple has done this. It’s called Rosetta 2 and it’s built into Big Sur.

What I’d like to see is Apple donate code to emulate an Intel processor on ARM to the open source community, so they can build an emulator for Intel Macs. This would permit access to ancient files and legacy software—albeit with rather a lot of faffing—and permit access to apps and files all the way back to the PowerPC (and 68K, since the PowerPC system 9 has a 68K emulator). This would, I feel, show corporate responsibility on Apple’s part, without really costing them anything. The Intel emulation is already done.

But without that? I really do feel we as a society are, in the relentless march of late-stage capitalism, destroying part of our own history simply because there’s no profit in keeping it.

And that worries me.

2 thoughts on “Apple Silicon and losing our legacy

  1. This so succinctly describes a situation, the problem and a solution. It was a delight to read and brought back memories of loading PageMaker from floppy disks or trying to get Quark 3 to activate.
    This kind of emulator would be so cool even though I’m totally certain that Apple won’t lift a finger to help with the legacy of the software that runs on their computers.

  2. PowerPC Macs aren’t hard to come by for under $100. You can easily grab a later G4 tower or laptop, ideally one that runs Jaguar or 9.2 natively, without needing to rely on backwards compatibility.

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