(or Don’t Rush Out and Buy SoftPC, Yet)
by Tom Hirasuna — [email protected]
Although I have used personal computers for over ten years, only recently did I become aware of the many children’s educational programs (my son Jeff is now 5). One such program is the Stickybear reading program. Stickybear is the featured character in a family of programs from Weekly Reader Software. Weekly Reader Software offers about 25 programs that tutor very young children in basic educational concepts such as the alphabet, numbers, shapes, reading, music, grammar, writing, comprehension, typing and math.
The Stickybear programs, which originated on the Apple II platform, recently celebrated their 10th anniversary. Many of the titles are also available for the IBM PC platform and the Commodore 64. By today’s standards, the Stickybear programs have crude animation, and this may explain why Stickybear programs do not run directly on the Mac. I expect a Stickybear for Macintosh program would require significant graphical improvement. However, the programs are fun and simple enough for a preschooler to run. I saw the Stickybear Reading program in operation and was convinced that Jeff would be thrilled by it. Providing Stickybear for Jeff to use in a Macintosh household became a small project in itself.
What alternatives are available if you want to use to a specific program that’s not currently available on the Mac platform? One course of action is to wait for the Mac version and encourage the publisher to "upgrade" its program to run on a Mac. With Stickybear, it’s uncertain whether a Mac version will come out in the near future, if at all. Another alternative is to adapt your Mac to run the other platform (whether it’s the Apple II or PC) and there are both hardware and software options to do this. Finally, you may want to buy another computer; many used Apple IIs and old PCs are available. In the PC platform, as the 486 increases its share, the prices of new 286 (the so-called "AT-class") and 386 computers drop by the month. Many used 286 computers are becoming available as their owners upgrade to 486s. The older PC and XT clone models based on the 8088 chips are also dirt cheap, but their capabilities are extremely limited. The rule of thumb is that if you need to run Windows, which Mac owners don’t really need to do, you should buy at least a 386SX. A 286 has lots of capabilities (approximately equivalent to a Mac LC) and a new system will run between $700-$1000.
My search for "MacStickybear" corresponded to the time when I was in the market to buy a new Mac to replace my old 512KE originally a 128K Mac. I eventually purchased an LC with a color monitor (yes, I’m glad I bought a color Mac); I also looked forward to buying the Apple IIe emulator card, which had been promised but was delayed. Finally, I thought, I could get Stickybear for Jeff. Within several weeks, a local Apple representative demonstrated the Apple IIe emulator card. He had Stickybear among some of the programs he brought for the demo, and I eagerly asked him to run it. The Apple IIe card did its job too well. I had expected to see a Mac desktop with a window for the Apple IIe emulation such as SoftPC does for PC programs. Instead, the emulator completely takes over the LC to run as an Apple IIe: no windows, no access to the Mac programs while running in Apple IIe mode. Even worse, the card only supports the Apple IIe, not its bigger brother, the Apple IIgs. I could not see spending money to buy a board to seriously cripple my Mac.
Another option was to run a fairly old software package called II-in-a-Mac, from a small company called COMPUTER:applications, Inc. They are so small that they advertised in the Marketplace section of MacUser and neither MacConnection nor MacWarehouse sold the product. Priced at $150, the program did not support color and was not a true window on the Mac desktop. I called about possible upgrades; they told me that II-in-a-PC (to run Apple II software on a PC) was available and was a significant improvement over II-in-a-Mac. An improved version of II-in-a-Mac was a future project for the company, but as far as I know, the product has not yet been released.
I started thinking of some bizarre possibilities for running Apple II programs on the Mac. I had seen SoftPC demonstrated and had a favorable impression of it (in retrospect, however, I failed to notice that the demonstration was performed on a high-end Mac II). Among these possibilities included running SoftPC on the Mac, then getting II-in-a-PC to run under SoftPC. I then realized that many of Stickybear programs have PC versions (and this is true for most children’s software with successful Apple II versions). I did not need Apple II emulation at all, just PC compatibility. There are some NuBus emulator cards for the Mac which let it run PC programs, but these cost nearly as much as buying a separate PC. I also thought that SoftPC would give me access to a wealth of ham radio and public domain programs (e.g., SuperMorse and PacMan). As soon as SoftPC became available for the low cost Macs (SoftPC Classic, now called Entry Level SoftPC), I went for this option. I also purchased AccessPC, a separate program which allows you to work with PC files on the desktop and format disks in PC format. Note that both programs are needed to allow you to run PC programs on the Mac desktop more smoothly. Street prices for Entry Level SoftPC and Access PC are about $125 and $60, respectively.
After I bought SoftPC I immediately purchased the PC version of Stickybear Reading as well as a bunch of public domain game programs. I soon learned the major drawback of SoftPC: it runs so slowly on low-level Macs that animations seem to progress only a frame at a time. Sounds behave similarly. I could get very high scores on Space Invaders, but it was no challenge. The SuperMorse code training program could not be set to proper code speeds, one factor which is critical to code practice. In general, SoftPC does not run any animations well, even on the faster Macs. I had been right that Jeff would enjoy Stickybear Reading; whenever we visited Grandpa we brought Stickybear along to run on his 286 PC clone. However, Jeff would no longer ask for Stickybear on the Mac after a couple of tries with SoftPC.
All in all, SoftPC has been a major disappointment. There are only a few categories of PC programs without equivalent programs on the Mac. I mentioned the children’s educational programs and the amateur radio programs, many of which evolved before the Mac was available. There is also the category of scientific software which runs laboratory instrumentation. Here you often have computers dedicated to the operation, data collection, and data analysis for one instrument. A PC is sufficient to do this without being too expensive.
Before Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect came out for the Mac, many people considered SoftPC as a godsend; if they had to run 1-2-3 or WordPerfect in their offices, they still could justify buying a Mac (with SoftPC added to the package). For these two programs, time dependence of the operation is not as critical as with data collection or animation. Finally, consider the level of the PC that SoftPC emulates. SoftAT at $200 street price is the top of the line version of SoftPC, but an AT is only a 286 PC. Also, Insignia Solutions, the developer of SoftPC, has established a record of expensive software upgrades, and its Customer Service is spotty, in my opinion. I do not recommend SoftPC to anyone – if you need to really run a PC-based program, get a PC clone. Don’t feel that you have to buy the top-of-the-line 486 PC machine if a used 286 PC would be sufficient for your needs.
All was not lost though; I found AccessPC to be a wonderful program which allows me to handle PC files and 3.5" PC formatted disks. It’s extremely useful when you have both a Mac and a PC and need to move files between them. Yes, I ended up with a PC. Grandpa upgraded to a 486 PC and gave us the old 286 PC so that Jeff could play Stickybear. And this old PC leaves SoftPC behind in the dust.
My comments about SoftPC are my own opinion and not necessarily representative of anyone who may feel that SoftPC was never intended to handle animation and other software requiring delicate timing, just to provide a way of running "must-have" DOS software on a Mac.
[I think the moral of the story is not so much that SoftPC is bad, but that emulation is just not as good as the real thing. Tom originally wrote this article for CLICKS, the newsletter of the Ithaca Macintosh Users’ Group. -Adam]