Time for an upgrade: Dev of the last modern browser for PowerPC Macs calls it a day

One final update for its 'couple of thousand' users then it's just a hobby


It's a bad week for anyone still using a PowerPC-based Mac. The developer of TenFourFox, the last real modern browser for the platform, has thrown in the towel.

Launched in 2010 in response to Mozilla's decision to suspend development of the PowerPC version of Firefox, TenFourFox attempted to provide a degree of continuity for those clinging to their older systems. As the name implies, it runs on Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, as well as 10.5 Leopard and the unreleased (but widely pirated) 10.6 Snow Leopard PowerPC beta.

In recent years, the user base had broadened from PowerBook holdouts to include those in the growing retro computing scene. While it never quite matched recent versions of Firefox in terms of features, TenFourFox nonetheless allowed for a relatively smooth browsing experience, with support for recent SSL standards, CCS3, HTML5 video, and other modern-day must-haves.

Sole developer Cameron Kaiser said he intends to release a final version in the coming weeks, with security patches provided until Firefox 93 comes out, scheduled for September 7.

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In a blog post, Kaiser attributed his decision to the difficulties in building and maintaining a modern browser as a one-man team working in his spare time. "I'm tired. It's long evenings coding to begin with, but actual development time is only the start of it," he said.

"It's also tying up the G5 for hours to chug out the four architecture builds and debug (at least) twice a release cycle, replying to bug reports, scanning Bugzilla, reading the changelogs for security updates and keeping up with new web features in my shrinking spare time after doing the 40+-hour a week job I actually got paid for. Time, I might add, which is taken away from my other hobbies and my personal relaxation, and time which I would not need to spend if I did this purely as a hobby and never released any of it."

And there are insurmountable hurdles that come with building a modern browser for computers that predate 2005. With no Rust compiler for 32-bit PowerPC platforms, creating builds beyond FireFox 54 is a near-impossibility. Adding modern JavaScript features, like await and async, would require major changes to the underlying JavaScript engine, adding further complexity.

'Fricking hard'

"Writing and maintaining a browser engine is fricking hard and everything moves far too quickly for a single developer now," Kaiser said. "However, JavaScript is what probably killed TenFourFox quickest. For better or for worse, web browsers' primary role is no longer to view documents; it is to view applications that, by sheer coincidence, sometimes resemble documents. You can make workarounds to gracefully degrade where we have missing HTML or DOM features, but JavaScript is pretty much run or don't, and more and more sites just plain collapse if any portion of it doesn't."

These are merely a plaster, however. Eventually, the dream of browsing on a PowerPC Mac will die.

Kaiser also used the opportunity to call time on Classila, a "vaguely modern" fork of Mozilla for older Macintosh computers running Mac OS 8.6 and 9. Classila's development has been far slower than TenFourFox's, with the last release in 2014. This, he said, was due to "the sheer enormity of the work necessary to bring it up to modern standards."

"The Web moves faster than a solo developer and the TLS apocalypse has rendered all old browsers equal by simply chopping everyone's legs off at once," he wrote. "There is also the matter of several major security issues with it that I have been unable to resolve without seriously gutting the browser.

The final release contains minor changes to the browser's layout engine, and contains a fix to the JavaScript engine that addresses an unspecified problem that creeps in when performing high-precision mathematical operations. While Kaiser didn't discount the possibility of future releases, the project has reverted to "hobby" status.

In closing, Kaiser echoed the gripes commonly expressed by anyone who has maintained a popular open-source project, bemoaning the burdens imposed by unhelpful users and bug reports. "The bug reports I liked least were the ones that complained about some pervasive, completely disabling flaw permeating the entire browser from top to bottom. Invariably this was that the browser 'was slow,' but startup crashes were probably a distant second place," he wrote.

No Power Mac browser is going to approach the performance you would get on an Intel Mac with any browser

"As far as the browser being slow, well, that's part personal expectation and part technical differences. TenFourFox would regularly win benchmarks against other Power Mac browsers because its JavaScript JIT would stomp everything else, but its older Mozilla branch has weaker pixelpushing and DOM that is demonstrably slower than WebKit, and no Power Mac browser is going to approach the performance you would get on an Intel Mac with any browser."

But he was more complimentary when it came to Mozilla, praising the firm's early support for the project. "I doubt I would have gotten the level of assistance or cooperation from anyone else that I've received from Mozilla employees and other volunteers," he said.

"I would rather trust Mozilla any day with privacy and Web stewardship than, say, Apple, who understandably are only interested in what sells iDevices, and Google, who understandably are only interested in what improves the value proposition of their advertising platforms."

Although PowerPC-based Macs are increasingly rare, TenFourFox has "a couple thousand" daily users, according to Kaiser, as well as "a few thousand more who use it occasionally." These weren't a monolith. Although vintage computing enthusiasts and upgrade-refuseniks made up its core, there were those who favoured it due to their reliance on older hardware that could connect to dial-up internet connections. This was illustrated by one bug report filed by a missionary working in the mountains of Myanmar who relied on a Mac Mini G4 to get online due to the lack of broadband connectivity in his area.

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Holdouts have few options left. Those using Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard on pre-Intel can try Leopard WebKit. There's also the last supported PowerPC version of Opera, 10.63, which has decent (considering the age) HTML5 and CSS3 compatibility, as well as support for TLS 1.1 and 1.2.

Another option used by some in the vintage community is to connect PowerPC Macs to a Raspberry Pi over VNC, which acts as a headless browser. Although the humble Broadcom chippery in the Pi isn't quite a speed demon, it should handily surpass a nearly two-decade-old PowerPC machine when it comes to rendering complex webpages and executing JavaScript.

Alternatively, there are sites that offer a stripped-back experience for older machines. We wrote about one such example, a port of Google News that's compatible with Netscape 1.1, earlier this week. ®

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