With enough love (and isopropyl alcohol), you can make even the oldest computer feel like it came straight from the factory. But when the restoration is done, vintage computing restorers are left with a difficult question: What next?
While old machines are handy for the odd bit of word processing and retro gaming, they're less suited to browsing, with modern websites throwing SSL errors and rendering glitches in the path of older systems.
Addressing this problem has been left to the community, which has conceived an array of solutions. Some, for example, have opted to use the humble Raspberry Pi as a gateway device. Others, like Philadelphia retro computing enthusiast Sean Malseed, have opted to create parts of the modern internet in a way that's intelligible to the earliest of machines.
We've written about Malseed in these storied pages before, describing his effort to jerry-rig tween fave Minecraft on a nearly two-decade-old PowerMac G4 Cube. His latest effort is a reworking of Google News designed to run on browsers as early as Netscape 1.1, first released in mid-1995 – when your correspondent started his first year of primary school.
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68.news is a fairly barebones experience, listing the top stories of the day. Users can click through and read the story, which would likely fail to load properly if rendered on the publisher's actual site. We tested the site on a PowerBook G3 Pismo running Mac OS 9 with the Internet Explorer 5 browser and noted it loaded (relatively) quickly without any real issues.
Speaking to The Register, Malseed said the inspiration came from a place of curiosity: "I got the idea for 68k.news because I work on a lot of vintage Macs on my YouTube channel, and I wanted a useful way to test them when I got them connected to the internet. Most modern websites are way too complicated for them to handle, and are either painfully slow or don't work at all. But why does reading the news have to be complicated?"
On a technical level, the site obtains stories through the existing Google News RSS feed, which are then processed with some PHP trickery. "Google News has a very nice RSS feed, for each topic, language and country. So I thought I could connect to that feed, and write some code to simplify the result way down to extremely basic HTML, targeting only tags available in the HTML 2.0 specification from 1995," said Malseed.
"So I used a PHP library called SimplePie to import the feed, and wrote some PHP code to simplify the results into a nice front page, using Netscape 2.0.2 on my 1989 Mac SE/30 to make sure it loaded fast and looked nice. The articles were a little more difficult, because they are on all sorts of different news sites with different formatting.
"So I found that Mozilla has an open-source library called Readability, which is what powers Firefox's reader mode. I used the PHP port of this, and then wrote a proxy that renders articles through Readability, and then I added some code to strip the results down even further to extremely basic HTML."
Malseed claimed the site had been accessed on machines as old as a 1979 Tandy, to more recent NeXT and Amiga machines, as well as a first-generation Nintendo Wii. He also told us he can apply his technique to other computers that would struggle with the contemporary web.
"I think I can use this same method to 'wrap' other websites so that vintage computers can read them. Old machines can't really use SSL security, so I can't do anything that requires a log-in or any sort of interactivity. But just to read a site, that's totally doable. I'm open to suggestions on what to try next, but my first thought is Y Combinator's Hacker News," he said.
Although perhaps not advisable for security reasons, those hoping to connect their vintage machines to the Information Superhighway (as it was once known) have few options. For late-model PowerPC Macs capable of running Mac OS X 10.4 or 10.5, one is TenFourFox, which is an unofficial fork of Mozilla Firefox. Another fork, called Classilla, targets machines running Mac OS 9, although is comparatively behind the curve.
Others in the retro community have opted to shift the computational heavy lifting associated with using the modern web to affordable (but comparatively more powerful) single-board computers, like the humble Raspberry Pi.
"The internet is a rough place for vintage machines," Malseed said. "As computers and browsers have become more powerful, sites have become heavier and more complicated. Often it's just to add more and more ads and trackers and social media blobs and such. Why though? You can read text on an old machine the same as on a brand new M1 Mac."
And there are websites that natively work on older machines. Malseed gave the example of CNN's Lite version. Another example is the campaign website for Bob Dole's unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign. Many of these are collected on The Old Net. ®