Old system is more than nostalgic

I am recently working on the inventory system I wrote for my father nearly 20 years ago with FileMaker Pro 4.0TC (Traditional Chinese) from the Mac OS 8 era.

It worked fine and my dad (60 years old at that time) was happy with it. He was so happy that he refused to replace the entire system even now.

The system ran on a Mac LC III, a Mac Centris 610 and then several first-generation Bondi Blue iMacs. Ten years ago I brought him a white iBook G4 as a present for his 70th birthday and wished he could get a hang of Mac OS X, so he could agree on migrating the inventory system to a newer, easier-to-support (for me) foundation.

He was more than happy with the iBook. He read emails on it, surfed the Web on it and played Solitaire more than ten thousand times on it — but he still ran the entire business on blue iMacs.

Time has come for the inventory system. The iMacs refused to boot one after another, and it’s getting harder to find printers compatible with the archaic Mac OS 9.

Worse than that, the Chinese system also evolved. The character encoding method was “Big-5” before the Millennium, and it’s superseded by “UTF-8”, or Unicode, on the newer Mac OS X. That means you could open the old FileMaker files with a newer version and keep all settings intact, but the Chinese contents become garbled codes incomprehensible to human eyes.

So it’s more a challenge to convert the 20-year worth of files then buying my dad a relatively new Mac, which I found in a local pre-owned store for US$550.

The Mac OS 9-capable machine I currently own is a “Flower Power” iMac. It’s bootable but the hard drive and DVD drive were all dead.

I have to first revive the iMac, reproduce an environment identical to my father’s office machine, run the old FileMaker Pro 4.0TC, try to export the data and convert to a Unicode version readable by a modern Mac.

I could have done this myself (I was Macworld magazine’s Chief Editor after all), but my young, talented IT manager showed strong interest in doing this for me.

He managed to install Mac OS 9.2 on a bootable USB disk (instead of the dead, extremely-difficult-to-replace internal hard drive) through an external DVD drive, upgraded the memory to a whopping 1GB, got it back online with an Ethernet router and found a browser that opens modern CSS- and JavaScript-rich Web pages.

On the way getting the Flower Power back to working condition, he started a side project working with another old-stuff editor to push its video playback capability to the limit. They collected some newer anime videos and converted them into various formats to play with different apps and to see how the old iMac performs.

The results were turned into a story (in Chinese) and this video (title in Japanese):

Back to work. Since I don’t have a working copy of FileMaker Pro 4.0TC on hand, an original CD was borrowed from an old Mac geek friend and successfully installed.

The old files sent by my dad opened beautifully, and suddenly all the memory comes back: those old Macs I’ve used to create this system, the old-style interface I made, the effort I put in creating this system in wish to help my father’s business, and how I tried to explain the way Mac system and database work to a 60-year-old guy — a hard-core radio techie in his time but had problem understanding computer and Internet jargons.

For many times, my IT manager, in his early thirties, shouted out in the reconstruction jobs: “how could people at that time use this darn machine to do real work?!”

Well, in fact this was my main work machine for about 3 years in early 2000s. I used to make a few bucks, made several Web sites and published MacZin, a Chinese-language electronic Mac magazine that lived for 2 years.

Since FileMaker seemed to have use some proprietary encoding methods and data structure, the data cannot be simply exported, converted and re-imported; some information was lost and data fields end up in wrong places. So I still have a lot of try-and-error to do, and I may have to redo the entire thing.

But, if time allows, I’d be glad to embark on same journey again. It’s not only helping my father out, but also to hone my FileMaker programming skill (which I used to write my own blog system in 1999) and somehow relive my younger life in a not-so-sentimental way.

It would be like listening some old tunes driving along a beach, or flipping through childhood albums with the family; but there’s a difference: it’s an enjoyable experience, or a mind path, to create something useful, like making a chair from the high school woodworking class, or rewrite a story you’ve written decades ago.

When my father receives the new version, I wish he’d be as happy as the last time and be proud of it as well.

This version should last another decade, or two.