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What were the most common formats for distributing applications for System 6/7-era MacOS Classic? Were applications distributed on floppies/CDs or online/via FTP/via BBSs? And what format were applications most commonly distributed in (eg. dmg, img, sit, bin).

Bonus question: were there any package managers during this timeframe (an app store or something like homebrew or any central package repositories?

4 Answers 4

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Up until things like Compuserve and AOL (and then Internet for the masses) came around, floppy disks would have more or less been the only option.

(CD-ROM drives in consumer machines arrived only a few years before the Internet burst onto the scene and, for the purposes of answering your question, they weren't appreciably different from floppy disks.)

As for digital distribution, these were the factors at play:

  • Classic Mac OS was designed from the ground up to be serviced without special install/remove tools.
    • The equivalent to SYS C: A: is "Click and drag a System folder onto the device you want to be bootable".
    • An application that doesn't integrate with the system when not running (aside from file associations) requires no special installation. Just the mac equivalent of "unzip and run".
    • Things like system extensions just need to be dropped into the System Folder (System 6) or the correct subfolder (System 7).
    • To the greatest extent reasonably possible, Macintosh system extensions are single self-contained files. (eg. a Control Panel can also embed an Extension so that it's one file to be dragged into the trash to uninstall.)
    • I can't remember if it was added in System 7.0, 7.1, or 7.5, but the system would pop up a dialog offering to put files into the correct subfolders if you dragged and dropped them onto the System Folder.
  • System 7 and below predate public Internet, so there was generally no expectation of applications receiving updates.
    • Up until Apple realized they could make good money selling System 7.1, the common way to get a System update was to visit your local computer store with some blank floppies (or buy a box from them) and just copy whatever was running on the newest demo machine.
  • Macintosh files have a data fork (the "bag of bytes" that other OSes have) and a resource fork (a key-value store loosely akin to POSIX Extended Attributes or NTFS Alternate Streams) and 68k Macintosh applications store their executable code in the resource fork, which means that Macintosh files need to be packed up in a form that will preserve the resource fork before being stored on a non-Apple filesystem or sent over a wire.
  • The .dmg variant of Apple Disk Images wasn't invented until Mac OS X

...so the common ways to offer Mac stuff for download during the period when classic Mac OS overlapped with commodity networking were:

  • StuffIt .sit archives (StuffIt served the role PKZip did for DOS, and gained popularity through a similar approach to licensing. Competitors analogous to ARC, ARJ, LHA, and ZOO included CompactPro, DiskDoubler, and PackIt.)

  • Self-extracting archives (eg. StuffIt .sea) and Self-mounting Disk Images (.smi) wrapped up in a format like BinHex (.hqx) or MacBinary (.bin) which was a single-file wrapper akin to .gz or .bz2 but, instead of adding compression, they folded the resource fork down into the data fork for transport.

  • Apple Disk Copy 4.2 images (.img) inside BinHex or MacBinary, because they store metadata in the resource fork.

  • For applications that had a complex installation process (eg. CodeWarrior IDE) or wanted a one-click way to install dependencies like newer versions of QuickTime, Game Sprockets (Apple's DirectX analogue that came out during the tail end of the Mac OS 7 era), etc., there did exist installer wizards, which would be packed up in one of the above mentioned forms, similar to how pre-PackageForTheWeb InstallShield would often be inside a WinZip Self-Extractor .exe or similar:

    • Apple's Macintosh Programmer's Workshop included a copy of the Installer framework Apple used, similar to how the Windows 3.1 SDK included a copy of MS Setup 1.x. I haven't personally run across many third-party applications using it.
    • Installer VISE was, for the most part, the InstallShield of classic Mac OS (though, as I mentioned, installer wizards were a minority). This was most likely because freeware and shareware authors could apply for a free license for Installer VISE Lite.
    • Later on, Aladdin Software released StuffIt InstallerMaker. I get the impression it started to become what commercial vendors preferred around the tail end of the lifespan of classic Mac OS, but that's just anecdotal. (Partly from vague memories of seeing some products switch from Installer VISE to InstallerMaker and wondering why.)
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  • nit: hqx/bin are probably better compared to tar, not gz. A tar archive (both now and then) serves the purpose of wrapping multiple data streams into a single file, whereas gz only applies compression to a single file/stream. StuffIt was then Mac's gz.
    – josh3736
    Commented Apr 3 at 11:35
  • @josh3736 That's confusingly backwards. StuffIt is a multi-file archival format that is the de facto standard for preserving the unique quirks of the OS's filesystem, just like tar is for POSIX platforms. Likewise, gz, hqx, and bin all take single files as input... it's just that, in the classic MacOS world, files are record-oriented, like in various mainframe operating systems. Think of discarding the resource fork more as akin to converting a PICO-8 game from .png to .bmp and losing all the program code stored via PNG's support for extra chunks.
    – ssokolow
    Commented Apr 3 at 17:53
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The "System 6/7-era" extends from 1988 to at least 1997 — 10 years that saw a a lot of changes in the IT industry[1].

From personal experience, Software distribution was mostly on physical media for most of that time, starting with floppy disks, and changing to CD-ROMS somewhere around 1993, first as an option for larger pieces of software, then becoming the default around 1995.

Online distribution was limited by bandwidth (9600 baud was fast for a modem in the late 80s), availability (Internet access was initially rare outside universities and tech companies; and BBSes were more of a geekish hobby than a mainstream software distribution channel) and cost (long-distance calls were expensive, and depending on where you were in the world, even local calls would be metered). Some of that changed with the rise of the World Wide Web and large-scale Internet Service Providers in the mid-90s, but even at 56K, you'd rarely download anything larger than a couple of megabytes - think patches and utilities rather than major applications.

I can't recall package management for MacOS (or, in fact, MS Windows); that was more of a Unix / Linux thing. For package management to make sense, you need a centralised publisher (which in turn means open source, cross licensing, or an app-store-sort-of-thing), and you'd benefit greatly from internet access. The former wasn't a thing at the time -- everyone packaged and distributed their own software -- and the latter wasn't generally available.

[1] From your question, I gather that you were not around at the time?

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  • 1
    Yes... born a few years later :)
    – gorgo
    Commented Mar 31 at 7:05
  • 1
    A lot of perfectly useful apps fit in 10MB or less back then, and a 28.8 modem amounted to about 10MB per hour. Not that dire.
    – hobbs
    Commented Apr 1 at 0:30
  • 1
    @hobbs As Michael says, it depends how your calls were charged, which depends where you were and what access you had.  If you weren't careful, you could rack up huge charges really fast…  (Mind you, although I can't speak for MacOS, many of my Atari ST apps were <100KB, and most were <1MB, so it was still viable — as long as you could find the software without wasting far more time+cost searching for it, checking known sites for updates, etc.)
    – gidds
    Commented Apr 1 at 13:48
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In terms of formats for BBS/online distribution, StuffIt and MacBinary were common for binary transfers. BinHex was common for 7-bit text-based transfers. All three preserved the data fork, resource fork, and Finder info (file type / creator type).

Disk Images were usually in Disk Copy (4.2) format. Wrapping a 50k file in a 1600k disk image is pretty wasteful for a 2400 baud modem so that was usually only used when a disk image was actually needed.

MacBinary is fairly simple wrapper and doesn't involve any compression. Any decent terminal programs could automatically encode files while uploading and decode when downloading.

StuffIt archives were sometimes distributed as self extracting archives (sea) so they could be run to extract themselves, without needing StuffIt. Since a macintosh application requires a resource fork and Finder info, they would commonly be wrapped in MacBinary as well when uploading to a BBS or (later) the internet.

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The existing answers deal with "official" methods, but there were also "unofficial" methods1, for those with low incomes. Macintosh software, back then2, was prohibitively expensive for students and low-wage earners and the unemployed. If you didn't work in a professional (or academic) Macintosh-based setting, and weren't innately wealthy, then you probably couldn't get your hands on the original software floppies.

A common way of getting hold of software, which usually worked fine3, was to purchase a (probably) lower spec cheap second hand Mac that was loaded with software. That software could then be copied over to your machine of choice (probably) a slightly higher spec'd second hand machine4, 5. The software was (generally) compatible between the various 68k based machines (obviously not necessarily so for the newer PowerMacs).

The copying process could be done in several different ways:

  • Using a ton of floppies and disk compression software (i.e. DiskDoubler) - an unbelievably tedious and repetitive process..!
  • Using two internal SCSI hard drives and a (possibly custom made) internal SCSI cable with three connectors: one for the motherboard, one for the disk with the software, and; one for the target disk. Plus a separate cable, of a similar arrangement, for the Molex power connectors.
  • If you were flush with cash and had an external (20, or later on 500 GB) SCSI drive, then it was even easier
  • If you had either a spare printer cable, or the requisite LocalTalk cables and adapters (or the cheaper PhoneNET cables/adapters) then you could use AppleTalk shares to copy the applications over.

For the latter two options it was simply a case of just dragging the Application's folders over to the new disk. This worked fine for Photoshop (3.0.1), Illustrator, Freehand, QuarkExpress, WordPerfect, etc..

This method also worked (to a lesser extent) for System folders - if you were a System collector. However, it was usually safer to do a clean install using floppies (either original or copied). Note that this wasn't actually piracy as Apple released the OS6 for free, and updates, and functionality expanding Control panels and Extensions were often available on the CD-ROMs that came with magazines, such as MacFormat (see below).

After the arrival of System 7.5, the OS began to be distributed on CD-ROM7, necessitating the purchase of a x4 speed CD-ROM reader, for those with older Macintoshes, that didn't have a built-in CD-ROM drive.

Freeware

There was an incredible amount of shareware/freeware at that time8.

For those without internet access, which was relatively uncommon back then, in domestic scenarios, the most common way of accruing software was via the free CD-ROMs that came glued to the front covers of Macintosh magazines, such as MacFormat9, (the short lived) CD-ROM Today, MacWorld and others.

These magazine CD-ROMs would often have a top level folder named "Shareware", containing (often) hundreds of applications which the editors had downloaded from BBS and other online repositories, and then redistributed on the free CD-ROMs.

As stated above, Apple updates and system extensions/control panels (most notably QuickTime and Sound Manager) were also included on these CD-ROMs.

Fonts were another thing that sometimes came on these CD-ROMs.

Personally speaking, the CD-ROMs on magazines were my major source of software (after the initial "unofficial" gathering of mainstream applications).


Footnotes

1 Piracy is such an ugly word

2 I'm talking mid 1990's

3 Due to the drag and drop method of deployment, and that most software was self-contained within one folder. This contrasted with DOS/Windows installers that seemed to just spray an application's files all over the disk, in unintuitive places. There were a couple of Macintosh applications that installed files in the System Folder, and if you didn't copy those as well, then the application wouldn't run correctly (I can't remember which applications these were).

4 Then sell on the cheaper Mac with the applications still loaded, to recoup the costs

5 The costs for a second hand Mac (in Madrid, Spain), were around 40,000 - 60,000 pesetas (£200-300) for a second hand LC, or LCIII, or IIci, 20,000 pesetas (£100) for an SE, 30,000 pesetas (£150) for an SE/30 in 1994/95. The US was cheaper, obviously.

6 IIRC, System 7.5 was when they started charging for the base OS

7 System 7.1.2 (which was for the new PowerMacs) also came on a CD-ROM, IIRC.

8 Even Metrowerks CodeWarrior was free for quite a number of early releases, and free (Bronze, Silver, Gold) CD-ROMs were available in some Apple franchise stores, until around 1996. This free give away wasn't entirely altruistic, as MetroWerks probably just wanted to get everyone hooked and blow MPW and Think/Symantec C out of the water. Then in 1997, with Symantec C++ and MPW on the wane, the Professional version was released at a prohibitive cost of around £300.

9 From around issue 19 (December 1994) - Prior to that it was floppies glued to the cover.

This is a photo of the first MacFormat CD-ROM (Spanish edition), April 1995 (there was a mismatch between the UK and Spanish edition numbers and dates). This particular issue included the Marathon Demo!

MacFormat (España) CD-ROM No 1

Here are some links to MacFormat disks 1-35 containing mostly 68k System 7 software on archive.org and Macintosh Repository - although there may be some corruption issues with the .sit and .img files. Some StuffIt files are compressed with pre-version 4.0 of StuffIt, and other, post-version 4.0, which had a different compression system. Use either StuffIt v3.5.1 or v.5.5.

There are also some CD-ROMs on Archive.org, for example Mac Format CD-ROM 32 [Christmas 95].

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  • Appletalk, in addition to working with the transformers on multidrop backbone twisted pair, connects two ports with a simple serial (printer) cable. Adapters are not required for that.
    – Whit3rd
    Commented Apr 2 at 16:20
  • Good point, I'd forgotten that. The SE (or SE/30) that I bought came with a shed load of phonenet connectors (IIRC it was from a company/office tht had gone out of business), so I always ended up using a pair of those. I'll update my answer later. Commented Apr 2 at 16:40
  • Updated with the printer cable. Thanks. Commented Apr 7 at 8:03

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