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Thursday, February 20, 2003

Farewell, Connectix

Microsoft bought Connectix. For you, maybe this doesn't mean much; Microsoft gets the ability to run multiple operating systems simulatenously, something that's at best a niche requirement for Windows users. For Mac users, this is horrible news.

To understand why, you have to look beyond whether Virtual PC, Connectix's current flagship program and the foundation of the technology Microsoft bought them for, has a future. Virtual PC is very clever and even occasionally useful, but it's not really indicative of what made Connectix such a fantastic developer of software for the Macintosh. Before there was Virtual PC, there was Soft Windows and Soft PC by Insignia Solutions, so Virtual PC wasn't even going somewhere new with the product.

What made Connectix special in the Mac market was the other products they created. They knew the Macintosh better than Apple did. Many many years ago, Macs were created with 24-bit memory address spaces. Because of the way that address space was laid out, it was impossible for certain early Macs to address more than 8 or 10 MB of RAM. Once upon a time that was a huge amount, but no longer. Apple threw up its hands and said "live with it." (In fairness, they had every incentive not to fix the problem, because then you would have to buy a new Mac, one not subject to the limitation, to work around it.) Connectix, on the other hand, wrote Mode 32, a program that fixed the bug. It was so successful and effective that eventually, Apple had to buy it from them and distribute it for free. (I seem to recall something about a possible class action suit if they didn't fix the limitation because of some advertising highlighting the 32-bit nature of the 68020 and 68030 processors, but I could be misremembering.) I came across my copy of Mode32 a couple of weeks ago when I was doing some cleaning and it reminded me of Connectix's cleverosity.

In 1994, Apple made a drastic change in its hardware, moving from 68000-series Motorola CPUs to the IBM/Motorola Power PC chips at the heart of modern Macs. In order to pull this move off, they needed to offer the ability to run the old software in emulation mode on the speedy new chips. They wrote a very good emulator, one that ran almost all the software you could throw at it. But it was a little slow. Connectix thought they could do better. So they wrote Speed Doubler, a new emulator for the old system. They threw in some other things to speed up the system, but the new emulator was the heart of the system. It was a huge success, and prodded Apple into upgrading their own emulator to match the performance of Connectix's. The Connectix emulator stopped working with OS 9, I think, but some of the rest of the Speed Doubler package lives on as Copy Agent.

Back in the day, RAM was expensive, and nobody ever seemed to have enough. Apple introduced virtual memory with its radical System 7 update to Mac OS, but it was slooooooow. Connectix had a better idea. They implemented virtual memory in RAM, compressing the contents of memory and decompressing it on the fly. They called the product RAM Doubler, and it was another incredibly clever move on their part. Interestingly, Apple didn't follow them on this one; they just let the falling prices of RAM eventually do away with the need for RAM Doubler. But in its day, it was a fantastic hack.

Connectix has had a long and honorable history of writing the most amazing software for the Mac. As I said at the beginning, they seemed to know more about the Mac than Apple did. They certainly knew how to make the machine jump through hoops it was never designed for. The programmers at Connectix were Mac programming ninjas. Microsoft isn't interested in writing little utility programs that fix Apple's mistakes and make Macintoshes better to use. Absorbing Connectix into Microsoft means we'll never see a jaw-dropping program from them again.

Update: Further exploration indicates that Microsoft isn't buying all of Connectix, just the part to do with Virtual PC. So perhaps Connectix will survive to write the next great Mac utility after all....

Posted at 4:42 AM

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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