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Top Mac OS X Utilities: Restoring Mac OS 9 Functionality

Everyone knows that the group that’s by far the most important to Apple is composed of small utility developers. Several years back, Apple saw that the Mac market was stagnating because almost every conceivable utility had already been developed. Realizing drastic resuscitation measures were necessary, Apple moved quickly to replace the Mac OS with the NeXTstep-based Mac OS X, hoping to give Mac developers the opportunity to restore Mac OS 9 functionality to Mac OS X and further extend Mac OS X’s limited interface, to draw Unix hackers into the Mac camp, and to provide a market for all seven NeXT utility developers.

Sarcasm aside, the number of utilities available for Mac OS X has indeed mushroomed of late. In preparing for this article, we turned to TidBITS Talk for recommendations, and the response was overwhelming – so much so that we’ve decided to publish a group of articles on the topic; this one will focus on utilities that restore Mac OS 9 functionality to Mac OS X. Read through the TidBITS Talk discussion for an unfiltered view of what’s coming up.

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Without further ado, here are the top utilities for restoring Mac OS 9 functionality to Mac OS X, though please note that these are not intended to be full-fledged reviews – we simply don’t have enough experience with each utility. If we’ve missed your favorite utility, bring it up on TidBITS Talk.

WindowShade X — The windowshade functionality that’s been in the Mac OS since System 7.5 actually dates back to an independent control panel for System 6 from Robert Johnson. Double-click a window’s title bar or click the collapse box and the window "rolls up" into the title bar. You can still position the title bar anywhere on screen; it’s an efficient way to reduce the space taken up by windows. Mac OS X eliminated this approach in favor of minimizing windows to Dock icons. Unfortunately, Mac OS X’s approach fills up the Dock quickly, and it can often be difficult to distinguish between different minimized windows. But with Unsanity’s WindowShade X, you get everything Mac OS 9 could do and more. There are four methods of invoking WindowShade X (the minimize button, double-clicking the title bar, Control-double-clicking the title bar, and pressing Command-M), and each method can cause a window to minimize to the Dock, roll up into the title bar, make the window transparent, or hide the application. Although you can control the opacity of windows made transparent, I find that option, like almost all other transparent interface features in Mac OS X, utterly annoying. WindowShade X is $7 shareware, and it’s a 374K download.


ASM & X-Assist — In Mac OS X, Apple tried to do too much with the Dock, making it serve as an application launcher, list of running applications, and more. Mac OS 9 broke those features out, and in particular, the list of running applications was always tucked away in the menu bar’s application menu. In Mac OS X, the clock and other menu bar icons take over that space until you install ASM or X-Assist, both of which return the application menu to the upper right corner. In ASM’s preferences panel, you choose whether it should show as an icon or a menu title, or both, and how much space the menu should take up. Other settings control how the contents of the ASM menu appear, what special commands (such as for hiding and showing applications) appear, and so on. Most important, it offers a return to Mac OS 9’s window layering, which ties all of an application’s windows together, so clicking one brings them all to the front (that happens in Mac OS X only if you click the application’s Dock icon or switch applications using Command-Tab). ASM also offers a Single Application Mode that hides all applications other than the current one. X-Assist replicates most of ASM’s feature set and offers two additional features: the capability to display a user-defined hierarchical menu of files, folders, and disks (much as you can do in Mac OS 9’s Apple menu), and support for special plug-ins (the included samples can set the Mac’s volume and play MP3 files). Though both appear to work, several people have said that they found ASM more stable. ASM author Frank Vercruesse asks for donations if you like ASM, which is a 354K download for version 2.0.2; X-Assist is free and is a 291K download.


FruitMenu & Classic Menu — The Apple menu has been a fixture of the Mac OS for years, and although Apple wisely kept it in Mac OS X, it’s a shadow of its former customizable self. Two utilities, Sig Software’s Classic Menu and Unsanity’s FruitMenu, recall the old days. Classic Menu is the simpler of the two; it merely displays the contents of the Classic Menu Items folder located in your Library folder’s Preferences folder. Populate it with aliases to files, folders, and disks, and you’ll have something that works much like the old Apple menu when you click on the Apple menu icon itself. Other helpful menu items add aliases of selected items to the Classic Menu Items folder, open that folder in the Finder, and let you select a different folder to use. Access the default Mac OS X Apple menu (which has useful commands like Log Out and Restart) by clicking right next to the Apple menu icon. Although FruitMenu provides the same functionality as Classic Menu, it more closely resembles Power On Software’s Action Menus in providing a preference panel for arranging your Apple menu and offering custom items not normally available, such as one that displays your current IP address. Overall, FruitMenu feels a bit more powerful, and it’s only $7 shareware, compared to Classic Menu’s $10, but both will do the job. FruitMenu 1.5.2 is a 481K download; Classic Menu is a mere 43K download.


SharePoints — In Mac OS 9, you could share any particular folder you wanted, and you could create users and groups that would have access to different folders. That functionality, though present under the hood in Mac OS X, wasn’t easily accessible until the release of SharePoints. Operating either as a stand-alone application or as a preferences panel, SharePoints lets you share any given folder and create users who can access specific shared folders but who cannot login via Telnet or SSH and who lack home directories. As a small bonus, SharePoints lets you specify a custom message to be displayed to users on connection. The author asks that for donations if you like SharePoints; SharePoints 2.0.4 is an 824K download.


Xounds — Although Apple has only dabbled in interface sounds, the sound effects for interface actions available from the Appearance control panel were effective at providing an additional dimension to using the Mac OS. Those disappeared in Mac OS X, but Unsanity’s Xounds can bring many of them back again. Xounds offers to import existing sound sets (though importing a third-party set and switching between it and the sounds from Mac OS 9 caused Xounds to stop working until I reinstalled Xounds), and provides roughly the same level of control as you had in Mac OS 9. You can choose to play sound effects associated with menus, windows, controls, and the Finder, although dragging sounds aren’t yet supported. Xounds 1.1.2 is a 384K download; it’s $7 shareware and works for only an hour per login if left unregistered.


Next Up — Keep in mind that I chose these utilities based purely on the fact that they returned features to Mac OS X that existed in a stock installation of Mac OS 9. In future installments in this series, I’ll look at utilities that extend Mac OS X’s new features in useful and interesting ways, utilities that bring to Mac OS X features that independent developers had added to Mac OS 9, and utilities that bring Mac OS X’s Unix underpinnings into the light of Aqua.

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