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While many Windows XP users are stressing over the major upgrade of SP2, Mac users got a tiny security patch, a small 10.3.6 upgrade, and a taste of our first, real virus. For years I got to brag about how my Mac would never get a virus and how I was safe because I didn’t have the flaws of Windows, or Outlook, or what have you. Then, right around Halloween, came the Opener malware script. It’s not a virus, but I’ll save that rant for another day. Opener has existed for Unix for years and since OS X is a Unix based operating system, it makes some small sense that Opener was adapted to a Mac platform. The benefit is that it’s a known entity and not all that hard to remove.

Malware is software that does bad (mal) things. Opener is a shell script (similar to DOS) that attacks the root of your computer. Instead of emailing everyone you know, or deleting your user directory, Opener attacks your firewall, installs remote access software, plunks down a password decoder app (John the Ripper, of all things) and proceeds to take over your Macintosh. Pretty hefty for a first virus. Symantec calls it SH.Renepo.B, and their write up of it covers all its evilness in great detail.

The blessing is that Opener has to be installed, either by hand or by another executable, and the safest way to prevent it from happening is to not install software you don’t get off a CD, lock your computer when you walk away, and use secure passwords. If you’re into filesharing, be it Limewire, Kazza or BitTorrent, be very careful. One of the ways this is distributed is in a PKG or DMG file, wrapped around the actually program you’re trying to install.

None of this would have been possible if Macintosh hadn’t gone to OS X, the Unix based operating system.

I hailed OS X as a fantastic leap forward for Macintosh. One of Mac’s many problems is the lack of software available. Sure, they have some of the best, native, handwriting recognition software ever (Newton 1.0 not withstanding) in Inkwell, and Microsoft 2004 is fantastic, but truly a fifth of the programs available for Windows can be found for Mac. By breaking Macintosh into the Unix world, suddenly Mac aficionados found themselves immersed in the open source world of Unix.

Upgrading from System 9 to OS X was no mean feat and as with all upgrades, it’s not the sort of thing you should do on a whim. System 9 and OS X are as different as 95 and XP, just as System 7 to System 8 was giant Macintosh leap. The main problem everyone saw with OS X is that the majority of the software used had to be rewritten. To a degree, this backfired on Macintosh, as the prohibitive cost of upgrading hardware and software daunted a fair number of users. Apple built in a safety catch called Classic Mode, which let you run some (but not all) software via an emulator. I removed mine from my Mac after a year, having rarely used it.

The other secret blessing was that Mac had been urging coders to move to a setup called ‘Cocoa.’ Cocoa apps had a fancier look and feel than the generic old school (classic) Mac, and a very different underlying structure. Microsoft, Adobe, and just about every major software company except Quark had jumped onto the Cocoa bandwagon, and many Mac users were pleasantly surprised at how much of their software simply worked natively on OS X.

That was a very long digression to the heart of this tip, which is how to upgrade to Mac OS X.

A lot of people are still on OS 8 or 9, and having been there, I tell you that you really need to upgrade. The actual upgrade process is not painless, and having heard the horror stories of XP SP2, I think they’re rather comparable. Unless you want to take your Mac to the Apple Store, you have to purchase the CD, and it’s not going to have the latest and greatest security patches. If you don’t have high speed internet, the upgrade will take a very long time (3 days on a 14.4 modem based on an upgrade I did last month).

The first thing you have to know is that you must not, under any circumstances, simply throw in the CD and let it boot to the CD by holding down the magic C key. If your Mac didn’t come with OS X, the odds are that this will not work because your firmware is out of date. For most Mac users, this ‘firmware’ concept was new and unwelcome. I can count the times I’d ever done it on a Macintosh on one hand, and I’ve supported a lot of Macs.

Apple.com has a great chart on which computers need an upgrade and where to get it. Surprisingly enough, the very new PowerMac G5s need an upgrade, while some iBooks from 2001 don’t at all. My rule of thumb is always to check if I need a firmware, as there’s no real way to know unless you memorize the list. If you happen to have OS X 10.0 or 10.1, you may have managed to upgrade without the firmware, and you’ll need to do it now to proceed. The catch here is that you have to apply these firmware bits with System 9. If you’ve already nuked your classic set up, you may be out of luck. Apple suggests that you start from System 9.2.2 at the lowest, though I’ve found you can upgrade from 9.1 in a pinch.

Before you upgrade, remember to write down (or print) your internet settings. Yeah, I know it goes without saying, but having seen people call their ISP for tech support on getting a Mac set up at 3 AM, well, best to be safe. If you’re on dialup, go to Control Panels from the Apple menu, and then choose Remote Access from the submenu that appears. That’s where your ID, dial-up number, and password are kept. If you’re on DSL, check with your ISP, though I’ve found that my Macs auto-detect the setup very nicely.

The next trick is actually upgrading. No matter what they tell you, don’t insert the CD and reboot, holding down the C key. While that might work for a new Mac, bought within the last two years, if your Mac is seriously older, you’re better off inserting the CD and clicking restart button from within the CD window that pops up. There are a few reasons for this, but the simplest one is that not all CD drives are created equal, and not all will reboot to the CD correctly. If you don’t start it from the CD, you may find yourself on a grey screen with a rainbow colored beach-ball, and a panic attack. Don’t worry, just reboot (unplug if you have to) and run it the other way.

Once you get the upgrade started, go out for coffee. It takes a long time. Mac says 30-60 minutes. I say double it. After the whole thing was done, I still had about an hour or two of software updates, which was really frustrating. Even when I bought a new Mac from the store and asked them to run the latest updates, I found that I had a couple left when I got home. I chalk it up to bad timing, but it was really annoying. The software update feature’s been around since System 8, but I find it useful. I have mine set to check once a week (Thursdays, 7pm) and to download the update in the background. It slows my net imperceptibly, although I am on DSL, and when I tell it to install, it slashes the time for that considerably.

Once everything is upgraded and done and configured, the actual ‘work’ takes less than an hour. Mac imports all your documents to their ‘new’ place, and if it didn’t, you still have access to the old sections. Most people I know did an ‘update’, leaving their old system files intact. I was the sort who backed up my documents and software, and did a full wipe the hard drive reinstall when I bumped to OS X 10.2. After all, I wanted the pure Macintosh feeling. The downside to that is you automatically loose Classic Mode, and any way of accessing the old Mac software. I didn’t find it a great loss.

Mac has their own site all about why you should upgrade as well as one on why you should switch from Windows. I don’t think everyone should use a Macintosh, but I do think everyone who uses a Mac and can switch to OS X should. Mac’s aren’t for everyone, and while Mac pitches a hundred stories about people who love their Macs, I’m sure there are a hundred people who love their PCs. I’m not trying to start a flame war. I think people should keep an open mind. If all you want is email, word processing, and the web, a Macintosh may not be a bad idea.

How to Upgrade
Switch to Mac