What Would it Be Like to Go Back to macOS Snow Leopard?

Some have fond remembrances of the halcyon days of Mac OS X Snow Leopard. But what would it really be like to go back to this venerable OS?

From time to time, I see musings by both readers and other authors about how Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard was the pinacle of Mac OS X development and stability. Even I have written about how, before the modern perils of the internet, Snow Leopard was the cleanest and clearest expression of an ultra-modern GUI on top of a UNIX operation system, in this case mostly FreeBSD.

And perhaps a few versions later, especially after the irritations of 10.7 Lion, one might have pondered the practicality of just staying with Snow Leopard. But here we are at macOS 10.13 High Sierra, and not only is going back in OS time impractical from a security standpoint, but we’d suddenly be missing features we take for granted today.

Snow Leopard

Introduced in August 2009, Apple made its first move to declare a maintenance update. It was the follow-on to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Leopard, released in October 2007, introdced Spaces, a built-in facility for multiple desktops, Quick Look, and Boot Camp.

Perhaps most notable for Snow Leopard was that the Finder was rewritten in Cocoa, making it faster. But it lost a few nuances that users loved, remnants of the Finder’s Carbon origins. All in all, Snow Leopard worked out the kinks of Leopard and was very well received. Especially since the price was reduced from the customary US$129 down to $29. I’ve heard stories about people who still run it today.

Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) was introduced, but likely wasn’t widely adopted until later. GCD made it easier for developers to write code that accessed more cores in a better managed way and with fewer bugs. It’s they key to exploiting Macs with lots of cores. We’d miss those faster, less buggy apps.

What We’d Lose Today

There’s a case to be made that Snow Leopard, in its security details and absence of modern features that we have become accustomed to nowadays, would be a real shocker to go back to. Here’s just a partial list of things that come to mind. I’ve probably forgotten many more. (It’s not a history of macOS.)

  1. ASLR. Address Space Layout Randomization is a key security feature that makes it difficult for malware to predict the entry point addresses for system functions and successfully inject its own code. Apple started the adoption of ASLR in Leopard, expanded the implementation in Lion, but didn’t finish protecting the kernel and kernel extensions until Mountain Lion. Because of this alone, one wouldn’t run Snow Leopard in a modern internet threat environment.
  2. Lion. Mac OS X 10.7 Lion got off on the wrong foot by trying to move users away from the file operation “Save As…” and created a firestorm that has long since subsided. Newly introduced was AirDrop, full screen apps, Mission Control (which unified several other disparate functions). Most importantly, in my mind, Lion introduced the essential recovery partition. Prior to this, one had to keep track of a disc or flash drive from which to boot and repair a Snow Leopard Mac.
  3. Mountain Lion. OS X 10.8 added what some consider to be the greatest annoyance, Notification Center. But it also introduced AirPlay mirroring. How could we live without that today? Apple started to enforce the idea of apps being digitally signed with the use of Gatekeeper.
  4. Mavericks. OS X 10.9 focused on several modern enhancements. It managed multiple displays better, included the Happy Eyeballs implementation in IPv6, focused on power saving techniques for the MacBook line (Timer Coalescing, App Nap, Safari Power Saver). We got iBooks and Finder tabs, which may, in hindsight, not be a big deal for some OS purists.
  5. Yosemite. OS X 10.10. Yosemite introduced the ability to send large email attachments via a link to a download rather than included attachment. Otherwise, the less said about Yosemite, the better.
  6. El Capitan. OS X 10.11. This version introduced System Integrity Protection (SIP). It removes the ability of admin users (or malware that has fraudulently acquired admin privileges) to modify system files and processes. Also, in this release Apple wisely returned to mDNSResponder networking. Yosemite introduced the discoveryd daemon for networking, and it turned out to be nothing but a headache. The IPv6 implementation was better tweaked to emphasize IPv6.
  7. Sierra. macOS 10.12. Sierra continued a tradition of making life better for macOS users using iOS. You could unlock your Mac with an Apple Watch, use Apple Pay directly from Safari, talk to Siri, and optimize and manage disk storage better.
  8. High Sierra. macOS 10.13. Most significant for High Sierra was the introduction of the Apple File System (APFS). It had been in the works for years and finally remedied the weaknesses of the aging HFS+ file system. Now we can move forward with new storage capabilities. We also got support for 4K/UHD/H.265 video. Metal 2 interface to graphics gave is access to Virtual Reality (VR). Here, also, Apple has started to phase out support for 32-bit apps, which probably have security issues impractical to solve.

Just a Memory

This isn’t meant to be a history of Mac OS X/OS X/macOS. Instead, it’s just an overview of some major advances from my remembrances and some research to remind us that the longing for the long-gone days of Snow Leopard is misplaced. We can’t ever go back. Snow Leopard, installed on a modern Mac, would drive us crazy.

Apple adapts. Security challenges continue. New hardware technologies enable a better, more responsive, more intelligent OS. We move forward into the future, often forgetting that more primitive technologies of the past, while perhaps favored in memory, just wouldn’t cut it today.

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