System 7 transformed the Mac on May 13, 1991

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in macOS
When Apple released System 7 three decades ago on May 13, 1991, it was the biggest change to the Mac since the start. While it came with some problems, it also brought us features we still use today.

Thirty years ago, software came in boxes
Thirty years ago, software came in boxes


It was a very different world in 1991. If you were a Mac owner, the release of System 7 was a thrill that had been years in the making. The New York Times even summed up the release by just saying that, "for Macintosh users, a very long wait is over."

This partly because System 7 didn't make a giant impact outside of Mac users, though. It was perhaps seen as more of a catch-up release than Apple would have liked, but if you had been working intensely with System 6, you wanted 7 badly.

And you may have got it badly, too. AppleInsider staff remember the 15 installation floppy disks and very well printed manuals arriving almost as well as we do the problems.

What was wrong with System 7

There were actual bugs, and it was just a few months until an update was released to fix them. But the key issue was that you needed more RAM than you might have.

At the time, that would typically mean that you just couldn't upgrade to a system that required more than you'd got. Except System 7 had a way of using hard disk space as virtual memory, so it allowed you to upgrade. It practically encouraged you.

"There are two basic reasons to upgrade to System 7," said Chris Espinosa, Apple marketing manager, in a video promoting the system to businesses. "One is that you can make every Macintosh in your organization more powerful and easier to use."

Espinosa did then go on to list what "every" Mac should have to make this work. Plus he showed how the upgrade included a compatibility checker that examined your Mac before installation.

This could be the precursor to how today'smacOS will check your system and sideline incompatible apps, leaving them in an "Incompatible Software" or a "Relocated Items" folder. In 1991, the check was done by a HyperCard stack.

Really it was a lookup table based on a list of compatible apps, as reported to Apple by software developers. That was possible back then, three decades ago, as there were somewhat fewer apps for the Mac.

It was such a different world. If your Mac contained software that had not been updated to run under System 7, the HyperCard stack listed it -- and included the phone number of the developer.






Just as developers have now had to adapt to Apple Silicon -- and previously 64-bit apps, Intel and more -- so they did have to make some changes to work under System 7. In comparison to whole platform changes, the work was simple, but it still took time for all developers to do it.

Whether people ignored the recommended RAM requirement of 2MB -- not a misprint -- or whether Apple was optimistic, there were people who installed that should not have done.

Remember that this was before SSDs, so when Apple said System 7 used your hard drive as virtual memory, it meant spinning discs. The result was Macs became very slow as System 7 read and wrote from those hard drives at length.

"And, second, you'll be able to use the great new applications require System 7," continued Espinosa. "And you don't give up much because System 7 is compatible with the Macintosh computers, the networks, the applications and the documents that you use today."

What was great about System 7

In our experience, it was hard to give up System 7 and downgrade back to System 6, and maybe chiefly because of MultiFinder. This was now built into the system and meant that, at last, you could run more than one app at a time.

True, it doesn't sound riveting now. And there's an argument that you're more productive if you stick to one app at a time. But in 1991, it was a relief and a blessing.

So was how System 7 came with the feature that shutting down or restarting your Mac no longer automatically emptied the trash. No one can remember whether it felt important that it was in System 7 that Find first appeared in the File menu, because we now all use Spotlight anyway.

As tiny changes go, though, the very smallest may have been the most surprising to Mac users of the time. System 7 introduced aliases, the way to effectively store one document in more than one place.

What you would do then and can still do now is select a document, an application, or a drive, and make an alias. That's a very small file that when clicked, will open the original.

There was one reason not to -- unless you had a powerful enough Mac, System 7 would run slowly
There was one reason not to -- unless you had a powerful enough Mac, System 7 would run slowly


You could copy that alias to a floppy drive and bring it to another Mac. As long as it was on the same AppleTalk network, clicking on the alias there was enough to open the original on this other Mac.

That was partly because System 7 also introduced Personal File Sharing.

And although we were all used to double-clicking on documents to open them, System 7 gave us another tool. It was now possible to drag a document onto the icon for an application and open it.

That was only mildly convenient compared to double-clicking the document to open it, except when you wanted to use a different application. Now you could drag a Word document, say, to WordPerfect for Mac and cross your fingers.

Speaking of word processors, it was in System 7 that we got TrueType fonts on the Mac.

And while it was less visible to most users, this is also the OS release that gave us Apple Events. You'll know of Apple Events to this day if you ever write AppleScript to automate your Mac.

What didn't last

All of these features continue in the Mac today, but there were some elements that got slowly forgotten over time. The most visible of these was Balloon Help.

Turn on Balloon Help and now when you moved your cursor over a control or a window, you would get pop-up information about it. Eventually.

There was also Publish & Subscribe. This let you "publish," say, part of your Excel spreadsheet. Then another user could "subscribe" to that and so when you changed the sheet, they saw the new data.

It was like Microsoft's Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) of the time. And while it scored over OLE for having a name you could comprehend, the feature itself was complex and cumbersome enough that it fade away from lack of use.

Unimaginable in 1991 and still surprising in 2015 when it was done -- but this is System 7 running on an Apple Watch
Unimaginable in 1991 and still surprising in 2015 when it was done -- but this is System 7 running on an Apple Watch

The excitement of System 7

The New York Times may have shrugged about it, but for a Mac user in 1991, System 7 was a huge deal. For the first time in some years, it felt as if you had a new Mac.

Of course, in some cases, you did. Because you had to.

But the feel of it was fresh and modern and it seemed as if Apple were doing something right. They were. System 7 became the longest-lasting of the classic Mac OS releases, being current up until System 7.6.1 in 1997.

Even then, there's an argument that Apple only moved on to System 8 because it helped with the clone contracts that Steve Jobs wanted to get out of.

That's not the best ending for an operating system, but overall System 7 is up there with the best of the Mac. And if we can't exactly miss it, three decades on, we can still look back supremely fondly to the days of the Mac SE/30 and the like.

Fondly enough that there have been many projects to let present day users see System 7 on modern Macs. And just to illustrate how long 30 years is in technology, a developer got System 7 working on an Apple Watch.
bewood
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 32
    bewoodbewood Posts: 5member
    I was a little guy back when System 7 came out. What I remember so clearly is the icons. Up until that point, icons were (32x32?) black and white. Boy, haven’t we come a long way! 🤣😊

    Hmm… Anyone remember Kaleidoscope? 👍🏼 Do they still exist?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 32
    georgie01georgie01 Posts: 380member
    Fun to think about and remember.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 32
    cincyteecincytee Posts: 332member
    I remember it best for what it became, 7.6, which may still be my favorite Macintosh OS version for balancing features with ease of use and stability (for its day).
    hammeroftruthwatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 32
    Oh HyperCard, how we miss you.

    Wish Apple would make Keynote adopt some of HyperCard’s functionality. Graphical objects containing their own AppleScript code, event handling etc. I can think of a thousand use cases and ways to include it without ruining the simplicity of today’s Keynote.

    Come on, Apple. Take this bait …just once.
    edited May 13 hammeroftruthdarkvadersteveauweirdsmithwatto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 32
    hammeroftruthhammeroftruth Posts: 1,038member
    Was still better than Windows 3.0 or 3.1. At my job during those days, we were using Windows 3.1 as a beta and it was running our entire mail order PC company.  It crashed a lot.  I thought it was ironic because we were also a Mac dealer but would never implement the Macs on anything except later on in the advertising department. System 7.6 was for the time one of the best operating systems on the planet. Fast, responsive, and not as buggy as previous versions and much better than anything on a PC. 

    The main reason why it didn’t overtake Windows was that people were buying these “clone” IBM PCs, which were knockoffs, since IBM didn’t patent the right things and therefore competitors just copied the hardware and reverse engineered the bios which was the only thing IBM patented. They sold these things cheap for the time and Apple couldn’t compete on price. 

    This is why Apple fights anybody who tries to make a “clone” Mac, and makes all of their hardware with specific clues on them to distinguish them from 3rd party copies. IBM lost billions over clone PCs and eventually got out of the hardware business. 
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 32
    davgregdavgreg Posts: 817member
    I work in Radiology and we used System 7 Macs to feed (mostly) after hours images to Radiologists. Those Macs ran 24/7/365 and fed urgent CT, Ultrasound and Nuclear Medicine exams to various Radiologists after hours at each of their homes and performed flawlessly for the entire life cycle. Our Radiology group ran over 100 Docs back then - many sub-specialized - and most of them pulled call and each imaging device on multiple campuses had a Mac to push and each Doc had a Mac at home, so we are talking about a pretty decent sized collection of Macs.

    What I remember about System 7 was that it was very stable and reliable. When we had a major ice storm a lot of our Doctors were stuck at home unable to drive, but we still had hospitals full of patients. The Macs were pressed into service with the Radiologists that had power and telecom, and they performed flawlessly under a pretty heavy sustained load for quite a few days.

    I love the modern Mac OS but remember System 7 as highly reliable and capable.
    hammeroftruthhexclockd_2PhiltkyFileMakerFellersteveauwatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 32
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 1,556member
    Ah yes, System 7. It had so many cool new things. It was a huge step up from 6.whatever I was running before that. (I remember the days of FontDA Mover)  VirtualRAM actually worked pretty well, I used it a number of times for large graphics. It wasn’t fast but if my Mac needed 24MB of RAM I could get it. Overall 7 was good and got better with each iteration. 7.5, 7.6 were the peak. When it became System 8 and System 9 you could tell the code base was getting a bit crotchety and arthritic. But 7 was just cool beans. 
    hammeroftruthhexclockwatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 32
    darkvaderdarkvader Posts: 510member
    My first Mac (no, not my first Apple, that was much earlier) came with System 7.0.1.  At some point I put a hacked 6.0.8 on it (as I recall, it was an English localization of the Japanese version, which worked because System 7 Japanese wasn't ready when the PowerBooks shipped) because it was faster.  Color didn't matter on the PB's black and white screen.

    System 7 ran ok on most Macs at the time, but it did not run well at all on the Mac Plus, even with 4MB RAM.  My university had a lab of Pluses, and the idiots running the labs decided that every lab had to have System 7.  That was fine for the IIci labs, not even really a problem for the SE/30 labs, but that lab didn't handle it well.
    Philtky
  • Reply 9 of 32
    blastdoorblastdoor Posts: 2,370member
    I was a freshman in college when System 7 came out. I remember walking over to the student union bookstore to get my copy.

    It seemed so amazing to me then, and I had so much optimism for Apple's future, hearing tales of Copland and Pink. Little did I know that Apple had deep problems and was heading into a dark age. 

    It has all turned out pretty well, though. The Mac is arguably better positioned today relative to the competition than it was back then, both in terms of hardware and software. My optimism might not have been warranted, but it turned out to be correct anyway. 




    pascal007MacPro
  • Reply 10 of 32
    MicDorseyMicDorsey Posts: 70member
    My first Mac, a IIci, came with System 7.

    When I hear people complain about the cost of Apple computers and devices today, I have to laugh. The cost of entry to become a desktop publisher in 1991:
    Mac IIci: $4,095 (5MB RAM, 200MB hard drive)
    Keytronic keyboard: $139
    Microtek 600ZS color scanner: $1,469
    Apple Laserwriter: $1,799
    Ikegami 20" color monitor: $1,990
    Cables: $18
    NET INVOICE $9,570
    TAX $737
    TOTAL $10,307

    Now, keep in mind those were 1991 dollars…
    muthuk_vanalingamhexclockd_2pascal007dope_ahminesteveauwatto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 32
    hexclockhexclock Posts: 911member
    Thank for the trip down memory lane. I can’t remember if it was System 7 or MacOS 8 that introduced Window Shade, but I miss that feature and wish Apple would put it back in. 
    edited May 13 watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 32
    bluefire1bluefire1 Posts: 1,113member
    I still have my 1984 Mac. Spent $2495 for it at the time, It was a bold, new intuitive computer that was a pleasure to use. I don’t recall how many System upgrades I did over the years, but I do remember  that from that day forward, I became an Apple fanboy.
    Just ask my iPhone 12 Pro Max, my AW6, my 2018 MacBook Pro, my HomePod, my AirTags, etc.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 32
    System 7 worked well. It’s just too bad Apple didn’t allow PowerComputing to continue.

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 32
    s.metcalfs.metcalf Posts: 901member
    Back when you had a real sense of ownership in the product you were buying.  Now these free annual updates and systems-as-a-service don’t feel the same.  Restoring macOS on old macs has become almost impossible as well.

    Stories like this highlight how much we achieved with far less capable hardware.  The software had to be efficient; now not so much.
    edited May 13 dysamoria
  • Reply 15 of 32
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,825member
    bewood said:
    Hmm… Anyone remember Kaleidoscope? 👍🏼 Do they still exist?
    Do you mean KaleidaGraph? Yes, the company (Synergy Software) still exists.
    I see a 2014 version installed on my Mac Pro, but it's 32-bit and won't run. :p
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 32
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,825member
    HyperCard!  <3  I never developed with it, but sure enjoyed using some of the stacks just about anyone could whip together.
    steveauwatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 32
    I loved HyperCard!! When I was in my early teens, I remember starting to create a RPG (think something like Final Fantasy) for it. That was so much fun!
    steveauwatto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 32
    blastdoorblastdoor Posts: 2,370member
    MicDorsey said:
    My first Mac, a IIci, came with System 7.

    When I hear people complain about the cost of Apple computers and devices today, I have to laugh. The cost of entry to become a desktop publisher in 1991:
    Mac IIci: $4,095 (5MB RAM, 200MB hard drive)
    Keytronic keyboard: $139
    Microtek 600ZS color scanner: $1,469
    Apple Laserwriter: $1,799
    Ikegami 20" color monitor: $1,990
    Cables: $18
    NET INVOICE $9,570
    TAX $737
    TOTAL $10,307

    Now, keep in mind those were 1991 dollars…
    Inflation calculator says that's over $20k in 2021 dollars. 

    Even the "low cost" Macintosh LC was pretty expensive (entry price of $2500, 1990 dollars). 

    And then there was the weight... I remember lugging the 13" monitor for my IIsi up to my dorm room. It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to pick up a 60" TV these days. 
    pascal007watto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 32
    lorca2770lorca2770 Posts: 17member
    Was still better than Windows 3.0 or 3.1. At my job during those days, we were using Windows 3.1 as a beta and it was running our entire mail order PC company.  It crashed a lot.  I thought it was ironic because we were also a Mac dealer but would never implement the Macs on anything except later on in the advertising department. System 7.6 was for the time one of the best operating systems on the planet. Fast, responsive, and not as buggy as previous versions and much better than anything on a PC. 

    The main reason why it didn’t overtake Windows was that people were buying these “clone” IBM PCs, which were knockoffs, since IBM didn’t patent the right things and therefore competitors just copied the hardware and reverse engineered the bios which was the only thing IBM patented. They sold these things cheap for the time and Apple couldn’t compete on price. 

    This is why Apple fights anybody who tries to make a “clone” Mac, and makes all of their hardware with specific clues on them to distinguish them from 3rd party copies. IBM lost billions over clone PCs and eventually got out of the hardware business. 

    What people do not realize is that IBM (DOS-OM) handled to Microsoft (MS-DOS) a blank cheque for what Microsoft is today, by not securing the OS. IBM blindly, was more interested securing a hardware that, after all Compaq shamelessly, reversed copied. Yes, it was a period of self-given importance of having a real IBM or a “clone”.
    And, if I still remember, it was said, that win95 was Mac84. My family laughed at me in 1984 for having a Mac which was considered a toy, since they “worked the keyboard”. “A real business comp”. Meanwhile, I struggled at my office with “Harvard” (?) graphics on DOS. Thanks,  Apple for changing things…!
    Jayyzzzuuzzz what a period

    watto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 32
    hexclockhexclock Posts: 911member
    Was still better than Windows 3.0 or 3.1. At my job during those days, we were using Windows 3.1 as a beta and it was running our entire mail order PC company.  It crashed a lot.  I thought it was ironic because we were also a Mac dealer but would never implement the Macs on anything except later on in the advertising department. System 7.6 was for the time one of the best operating systems on the planet. Fast, responsive, and not as buggy as previous versions and much better than anything on a PC. 

    The main reason why it didn’t overtake Windows was that people were buying these “clone” IBM PCs, which were knockoffs, since IBM didn’t patent the right things and therefore competitors just copied the hardware and reverse engineered the bios which was the only thing IBM patented. They sold these things cheap for the time and Apple couldn’t compete on price. 

    This is why Apple fights anybody who tries to make a “clone” Mac, and makes all of their hardware with specific clues on them to distinguish them from 3rd party copies. IBM lost billions over clone PCs and eventually got out of the hardware business. 
    Apple did allow clone Macs for awhile, which is what I bought back in 1994 or so, a Radius 81/110. It was a great machine that got my foot in the door, so to speak. 
    watto_cobra
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