SheepShaver: A Cross-Platform Tool For Retro Enthusiasts

The world of desktop computing has coalesced into what is essentially a duopoly, with Windows machines making up the bulk of the market share and Apple carving out a dedicated minority. This relatively stable state hasn’t always existed, though, as the computing scene even as late as the 90s was awash with all kinds of competing operating systems and various incompatible hardware. Amiga, Unix, OS/2, MacOS, NeXT, BeOS, as well as competing DOSes, were all on the table at various points.

If you’ve still got a box running one of these retro systems, SheepShaver might be able to help expand your software library. It’s not the sort of virtualization that we’re used to in the modern world, with an entire operating system running on a sanctioned-off part of your system. But SheepShaver does allow you to run software written for MacOS 7.5.2 thru 9.0.4 in a different environment. Unix and Linux are both supported, as well as Mac OS X, Windows NT, 2000, and XP, and the enigmatic BeOS. Certain configurations allow applications to run natively without any emulation at all, and there is plenty of hardware support built-in as well.

For anyone running retro hardware from the late 90s or early 00s, this could be just the ticket to get an application running that wasn’t ever supported on one of these machines. As for the name, it’s a play on another piece of software called ShapeShifter which brought a Mac-II emulator to the Amiga. SheepShaver has been around since the late 90s, too, so we’re surprised that we haven’t featured it before since it is such a powerful tool for cross-platform compatibility for computers of this era. Even if all you are hanging on to is an old BeBox.

20 thoughts on “SheepShaver: A Cross-Platform Tool For Retro Enthusiasts

  1. This has been around for decades
    “Yes, SheepShaver originally appeared for BeOS in 1998 as a commercial application (first as shareware, then via the now long-defunct BeDepot). Due to the demise of Be, it has been re-released in 2002 as Open Source software under the GPL.”

  2. “This relatively stable state hasn’t always existed, though, as the computing scene even as late as the 90s was awash with all kinds of competing operating systems and various incompatible hardware. Amiga, Unix, OS/2, MacOS, NeXT, BeOS, as well as competing DOSes, were all on the table at various points.”

    VMs and emulators really open things up. Problem is it isn’t always a click and point easy thing to do. Limiting it’s popularity.

  3. From the wistful reminiscences of today’s retro computing enthusiasts one would think that the computer OS market was once wide open where one could check the computer in any office or home and not make a good guess as to what OS they would find before they got there.

    Amiga, NeXT, BeOS? I don’t remember running into any of these until first reading of them in what was basically their obituaries. And in the pre-internet days I used to read all the computer magazines the local libraries carried.

    I remember a few rare businesses having OS2 machines that no one really used except to control one specific machine each. Typically everyone was afraid to touch those computers as no one knew how to set it up again if something went wrong. Beyond that it was always Windows and MacOS or DOS and some sort of Apple depending on the decade.

    Did I just grow up in some unusually drab, low variety neck of the woods or did these other systems never really have their day outside of a few enthusiasts. Is the retro crowd on to something or just stuck looking at the past through rose colored glasses?

    1. “Is the retro crowd on to something or just stuck looking at the past through rose colored glasses?”

      AFAIK the latter, of course. “We” retro people are totally backwards, incompetent and illusionary. And “we” like to use old tech solely because we’re completely, 100%, incapable of using modern state-of-the-art hardware sold in the next super market. It’s just beyond our understanding. That’s why. What other possible reason could there be? 🙂


    2. Amiga was pretty big. I remember they were a very vocal minority, but I knew several Amiga fans in real life, and a lot of highschools had Amigas with Video Toasters for videography classes, even up into the late 90’s.

      OS/2 was a big contender in business computers between Win 3.1 and 95. The ability to run Windows software made it a no-brainer, until Microsoft screwed IBM over with Win95. It was still used in niches for another decade, especially in ATMs.

      There were others. CPM was still huge until around DOS 5.0. DR-DOS was fairly widely used until the mid 90’s. Novel Netware was the de-facto standard until Windows NT 4 or so.

      Next was niche, and was only ever used by a few professional graphics companies that would normally be using SGI workstations running IRIX. Never really hit the consumer market. They would have probably been a contender, except Apple rehired Steve Jobs who got Apple to buy NeXT and turn it into MacOS X. Parts of it live on in MacOS and iOS to this day.

      BeOS was a failure to launch. They were highly anticipated, and there was a lot of hype around their OS, but they ran out of steam before they ever got any widespread adoption. I think they did end up getting their hardware out of prototype, but they only sold like a thousand units before throwing in the towel.

      1. BeOS ported to x86 and gained some traction in music production and a few other niche areas. Then for some reason the company decided to pivot to the internet appliance market, and we know how that went, for all the players in that dead end alley.

    3. To be honest, I think it also depends on which part of the world you lived.
      And on the special fields.

      Amiga was strong in TV studios (VideoToaster etc), among geeks, video game artists (Deluxe Paint) etc. Fans of graphics demos and tracker music used it, too. Amigas were also equipped woth bridgeboards (PC emulator cards) sometimes.

      BeOS was a multimedia OS used by video professionals, to operate hard disk based video recorders.

      NeXT was used in the research field and by web designers, virtual reality/3D modeling folks (VRML etc) and so on.

      OS/2 was used by software developers, to run their development software in true multi-tasking fashion. It was also used by network people, to run LAN Manager. To run big LANs. In essence, all the stuff Windows NT wasn’t ready yet for.

      In the early 90s, OS/2 version 2.11/Warp3 was kind of successful as a high-end DOS/Windows 3 alternative among home users in Europe (like here in Germany thanks to ESCOM/Vobis computer stores). It had good multimedia features, too. OS/2 was used by mailbox sysops to run multiple copies of DOS-based BBS software.

      Mac/System 7 was very popular as a platform for accessing the mid 90s internet, as a platform for Desktop Publishing (DTP), running Photoshop etc. It also was an alternative to people who didn’t like Windows platform or wanted easy networking (AppleTalk, PhoneNet etc). Mac platform had professional looking software that *just worked* (under ideal circumstances).

        1. DeVry University (as DeVry Technical Institute) offered correspondence courses in digital music that included an Atari ST. Having MIDI built in made it the ideal computer for that. After the collapse of Atari, they changed the course to include a PC clone with a soundcard that had MIDI. The school was founded in 1931, offering courses in radio and other electrical and electronic fields. Their television repair courses included televisions, which the student had to build up from components. Of course they kept up with the advance of technology from the early monochrome all vacuum tube models, to transistors, then microchips.

      1. IBM failed to get anywhere in the home market with OS/2 because they didn’t do anything for games. Microsoft developed WinG for 3.1x then DirectX for 9x and later. They even established their own games development and publishing division, along with their own line of game control hardware.

        OS/2 was better able to keep misbehaving programs from crashing the entire OS than Windows. That would have been a big deal for games.

        Macintosh had easy networking, but it was very limited compared to Windows. Without extra cost 3rd party software, Mac OS 9.x.x and earlier were limited to running one protocol on one interface. Windows 95 could run multiple protocols simultaneously on multiple interfaces. Having to reboot after making any little change in networking was a small price to pay for the versatility.

        Another problem with classic Macintosh networking was in AppleShare IP, there was no way to delete an entry for a server unless the computer was connected to it. If the password was unknown or the sever was no longer there, its entry would be stuck in the list forever, until the user deleted the preferences file. That deleted ALL the sever entries so all the still valid ones had to be re-entered. There’s never been anyone with the Mac software skills to write a networking prefs editor who cared to write what would have been an extremely useful program.

        1. “IBM failed to get anywhere in the home market with OS/2 because they didn’t do anything for games. ”

          I think you’re right. But I also think I’ve read that IBM did hire/pay game studios to port existing games for them. Which wasn’t a very convincing move to establish OS/2 as a games platform.

          Team OS/2 did a good job at improving OS/2, I think. But they didn’t get enough support, perhaps.
          Things like DIVE or enDive were interesting. They evolved from Multimedia Presentation Manager and the new driver models.


          Video playback via Ultimotion codec really was fascinating, much smoother than Video for Windows. OS/2 had the ability to be good at video conferencing, if IBM only didn’t mess things up. *sigh*

          Early NES, Gameboy, MSX, Colecovision, or C64 emulators were ported to Unix/Linux and OS/2, among other platforms, but seldomly to Windows (emus for 3.1x existed, but were limited/rare by comparison). Windows wasn’t mature enough yet; slow graphics and timing issues due to limited multitasking capabilities. With the Win32s/WinG extensions and Win95, this changed later on.

          Examples (newer builds):

          Vintage emulators for Win 3x (and thus Win-OS/2) :

          What’s also interesting is, that OS/2 Warp ran better on weak hardware than Win95, so it served as an alternative kind of.

          But yes, globally seen, OS/2 was a niche. But an interesting one, I think. It served as a way out of chaos for a few people in despair, until Windows had matured. By the time Windows 98 was around, DOS, 16-Bit Windows and OS/2 were all loosing ground. Speaking under correction, of course.

    4. “IBM PC Compatibles” and Macs didn’t have the stranglehold everywhere they had in NA. For example up until around Windows 95 Amigas and Atari STs we’re much more common in homes in Europe,
      and some Amiga fans held on until the late 90s/early 2000s. Even 8bit micros still had plenty of holdouts into the mid 90s putting them to serious use. Macs didn’t really get a serious foothold outside of specialist usage until a couple of years after they switched to Intel, when iPhones took over Blackberrys as the cool phone.

      1. Well, it’s not as if we Europeans had no IBM compatible PCs in the 80s/early 90s.
        It’s just that the home computer market was still alive. Sadly.

        While the USA had their great video game crash in 83/84,
        which wiped away all inferior home computers, we didn’t.

        We still had slow datasettes when the USA had floppy disk as a standard.
        We still used low-resolution portable TVs with antenna jack as monitors.
        Yes, there was SCART. But it was not standard on TV sets of the early 80s, merely on video monitors there was RGB.
        There also were monochrome green monitors, of course. But children didn’t like them so much.

        Another issue, at least here in W. Germany, was technophobia, except at the executive floor.
        Back in the early 80s, citizens had Orwell’s 1984 in mind and were afraid.
        The German BTX online service (Minitel counterpart; later renamed to Datex-J) was being hated.
        Not because it was bad per se or expensive, but because citizens feared computers.
        Computers equaled evil. Except to the youth, which played on their C64s, Spectrums etc.
        To the public, computers were stealing jobs. The worker class was afraid of losing their labour.
        Credit cards were almost being unheard of, too.

        In E. Germany, computers were very rare by comparison.
        Kids had merely access to KC85 and other low-end systems at school, if at all.
        There also was the AC-1 computer, afaik. But the majority of computers were gifts from western family members.
        They had sent C64, Amiga etc over to E. Germany. At work, only the high society had proper PCs, based on SCP and DCP OSes.

        All in all, this wasn’t a pretty picture here in both Germanies.
        Then the Amiga and Atari ST got released and gave the crowd access to PC-like computers “first time”.
        Step by step. These platforms also had PC emulators, like PC-Ditto.
        PC-Ditto came in two versions a) purely software based b) software+8088 daughtercard
        The Amiga had something similar, the “Transformer” from 1985.
        Later, socalled bridgeboard became more common, too.

        They allowed ordinary citizen to use PC software for school/university.
        Like PC-DOS 2.x/3.x, GW-BASIC, Turbo Pascal 3.0, Flight Simulator, dBase, Clipper, Leisure Suit Larry etc.
        Not bought for money, of course. These were backup copies gotten from “a friend”. ;)

        Meanwhile, France had its own type of weird computers from Thompson. TO-7, MO-5 etc.
        The UK had their BBC Master home computers, Sinclairs, their avanced Acorn Archimedes RISC PC running Arthur OS etc.

        By the mid-late 80s, affordable XT class PCs like the Amstrad/Schneider PC1512 and 1640 got more popular in Europe.
        These PCs were comparably popular to the Tandy 1000 series in the USA, just less capable.
        But faster due to an 16-Bit 8086 at 8 MHz (often upgraded to NEC V30). And with GEM as a GUI!

        So yeah, that’s pretty much it. We had IBM PCs, plenty of them. Used in industry, in communications.
        Just not at home. Not cheap enough. At work, Microsoft products were an industry standard, at least here in W. Germany.
        We also had Datex-P, a professional packet-switched X.25 network. The wholesale, banks and universities used it, too.

        By contrats, those beloved C64s, ZX Spectrums, ZX81s, MSXs and CPCs were barely used at work.
        They were used for special purpose applications only, at best. Control a machinery via user port (robot arm).
        Do a bit of painting/doodling via light pen. Maybe for running a little database at
        a auto repair shop or to control an EPROM programmer. Or for decoding morse code/RTTY.

        That’s one of the big differences, I think.
        The states skipped the humble home computers after the crash, as far as I understand.
        They rather quickly adopted the IBM compatible PCs from work, even if they merely had CGA graphics, at worst.
        They also used Macintoshs (W/ access to AppleTalk/PhoneNet) more than us. Both was very clever, I think.

        By doing so, people/users at home could learn to master their PCs at work, too. And vice versa.
        They also could exchange parts of PC hardware and get outdated work PCs for their own use.

        As an European, I think Europe was years behind, both technolocally and mentally.
        Back in the 90s, some people seriously kept using their C64 as if it was a *real* computer,
        rather than the toy it had become in the meantime. Picture this. There were 486 PCs with VLB SVGA graphics on sale,
        but some home computer users had no idea about technological progress. They lived as if it was 1985 or something.
        As if they had been living under a rock. Used candles and weared bearskins when everyone else had electric light.

        Back in 2000 I read about someone in Germany who seriously wanted to give an 1MB 286 PC to his grandson.
        As a beginner’s PC. Others tried to convince him to rather give it to collectors and give the grandson the money.
        So he can buy himself something nice. I still wonder how the story had ended. Picture this. Such people are real.
        Technological progress totally passed him by. The same was partially true to home computer users, I’m afraid.
        Good, advanced things like MSX 2 standard rarely made it to us, too.
        We were stuck with Frogger, Hunt the Wumpus and Head over Heels. *sigh*

        Under this circumstances it becomes clear why the Amiga was such an beloved machine.
        Aside from C64&GEOS, it was the closest to a “real” computer that the crowd had. It was our Macintosh, essentially.
        Which is ironic, because the Atari ST had actual similarity to the Macintosh.
        However, the ST was more used as a word processor, MIDI machine and database computer due to its
        high-resolution monochrome graphics. It always was number #2 behind the Amiga.

        Disclaimer: Speaking under correction here. This is my impression, merely.
        It’s based on both observation and talk with home computer users I knew.

      2. Anyone from Brazil want to weigh in on how dumb Apple was to crush Unitron for cloning the Macintosh rather than doing the workaround vehicle manufacturers had long used to bypass import restrictions?

        Until 1992, Brazil banned import of complete computers. So with the apple ][ series unavailable from Apple, and with easy to copy hardware like the IBM PC, apple clones were everywhere.

        Unitron was doing a clean room clone of the Macintosh (like how Compaq cloned IBM) but Apple obtained a Unitron hardware clone with a copy of the Macintosh ROM in it, rather than the reverse engineered ROM.

        Had Apple’s people been *smart* they would have used Licensed Local Production in a deal where Unitron would have manufactured the Macitosh in Brazil under license, along with using their R&D there to work on new products for the worldwide market.

        Vehicle manufacturers have done that to get their cars and trucks into countries that ban import of complete vehicles from the USA or some other countries. In those countries the local production could be anything from almost 100% locally sourced parts to CKD or Complete Knocked Down where all the parts and an unwelded body shell are shipped in to an assembly plant.

        Apple could have shipped logic boards to Unitron, and they’d have sourced or manufactured all the rest. Apple would’ve made a lot of money from Brazil, but they chose to get nothing.

        1. I didn’t know that! Thank you a lot for sharing this part of computing history with us! 😃

          “Apple obtained a Unitron hardware clone with a copy of the Macintosh ROM in it, rather than the reverse engineered ROM.”

          Or maybe Apple faked the evidence on purpose? I mean, it’s Apple. We know how religious they are/were about their creations. Personally, I think that company is capable of doing so. But that’s just my personal opinion, ofc. Switching an EPROM is easy as pie, if it’s socketed, after all.

    5. I’m going to agree with others here and say that geography might have played a big part.
      Growing up in the UK, I had an Amiga, and I knew people who owned Atari’s, Spectrums, C64’s, BBC Micros and Acorn Electrons, oh, and a handful of IBM compatible machines.
      Apple Macs were around in some places, but I don’t think the early models (eg Apple II) were that widespread on this side of the pond.
      By the late 90’s ‘Wintel’ was well on it’s rise to dominance, but until maybe the mid 90’s it could possibly have gone another way. (Which the the cue for all the retro fans to jump in with their favourite ‘what-ifs’, like, ‘what if Commodore had been competently managed?’)

  4. In my neck of the woods everyone used IBM capatible systems. Only saw os\2 for industrial use and there was the weird kid down the street that had a Mac.

    I had a BeBox but many years after Be went like the dodo.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.