Macs are computers, not magic (part 2)

Last night my wife had a meeting with a bunch of other designers for a small volunteer publication. All had Macs, of course.

Two had Macbook Pros (my wife is still on a G4 Powerbook) and were commiserating about the overheating and noise issues (some weird whirring every now and then). They weren’t unhappy. They loved their Macbook Pros, actually.

Well, then, our router started acting up. Recently, it had been dropping our connection off and on, but last night the drops were particularly bad—our connection was going every five to ten minutes, and even the wired connection to my desktop was going. So, I did some online research (while the connection was working) and found out that sometimes a firmware upgrade helps to give more stability. Sure enough, a firmware upgrade helped (the currently installed firmware was from 2004; the latest upgrade available was from 2006). Even though the router was stable, only Ubuntu seemed to play nice with the connection. The wired Ubuntu desktop connection worked, of course. And the wireless Ubuntu connection on my Dell laptop also worked fine. But my wife’s Powerbook kept saying it was unable to join our wireless network. I kept trying and trying. I turned the Airport off and on again. I tried changing the network settings. I tried rebooting. All to no avail. The only thing that ended up working was changing the encryption from WPA2 to WPA.

So much for “just working.”

Just as in my last Macs aren’t magic post, I’m not trying to bash Macs. I’m not trying to say Ubuntu is better or always functions better. In fact, there are many ways in which Ubuntu lacks the functionality or compatibility Mac OS X has (multiple monitor configuration or commercial application support, for example). I just get tired of people saying that Macs “just work.” Last night’s experience just cements further for me the idea that no computers or operating systems “just work.” They are human-made machines that sometimes give us problems. Ubuntu, Windows, Mac—it doesn’t matter. There is no computing panacea.

Does browser speed matter?

At work, I have a high-speed internet connection. At home, I also have a high-speed internet connection. If ever I was to be on dial-up, I think I’d just browse with images turned off (or use a text-only browser, like Dillo). No matter what browser I’m trying or using, I always use tabs.

So, when I see debates on the internet about browser speed, I’m not sure what the point is exactly. This is how I browse:

  1. I visit the site I want to go to.
  2. If I see an interesting link, I middle-click it so that the tab for it loads in the background.
  3. I read anything that needs reading.
  4. If I see more interesting links, I middle-click those as well so that they load in the background.

The first page takes anywhere between .1 and 1.5 seconds to load. Then the load times for subsequent pages don’t really affect my browsing experience, because I don’t even see those pages until I close the one I’m currently viewing.

The only time speed has mattered to me is when the website’s server is slow (taking more than ten seconds to load), and that really has nothing to do with web browser I’m using.

What do other people think? Is browser speed important to you in picking which web browser you use most often? Why?

Evolution trumps Outlook for Exchange?

I just took a new job, and my new school uses Microsoft Exchange for email, so Thunderbird is out as an option (yes, I’ve tried to read about how to use Thunderbird for Microsoft Exchange—all the instructions are too complicated or incomplete). The computer I got for work was supposedly configured to check Exchange using Outlook, but it didn’t work. I was able to check the web version of Outlook Exchange, but I couldn’t check my email using regular Microsoft Outlook. I kept being prompted for my password, being told Outlook was offline (with no opportunity for me to put it back online), and being unable to launch Outlook and fix it after the errors appeared (I’d just be kicked out of Outlook completely after all the error messages disappeared).

It’s entirely possible that the official tech support might have figured it out for me come Monday, but I spent the weekend trying to figure it out on my own… because I’m just that way. Eventually, through a lot of Google searching of error messages, trial and error, and registry editing; I managed to get Outlook and Microsoft Exchange to play nice with each other. It took me about three hours spread out over two days.

The truly odd thing, though: the Microsoft Exchange email worked perfectly with no fuss when I configured it in Evolution on Ubuntu. No error messages. No extra tweaking. It just worked. How weird is that? (By the way, part of my attempts to get an email client in Windows working with Microsoft Exchange included trying to use a Windows port of Evolution, but that didn’t work out.) I guess I just assumed that since Microsoft created Microsoft Exchange and also Microsoft Outlook that the two would be a cinch to work out with each other. I also thought that maybe Evolution (being a Free application primarily for Linux) would have a hard time working with Microsoft Exchange (a non-Free application designed to work with Windows).

The price of apples

Recently, both my brother and I had occasion to visit our parents’ home briefly for a family event. He decided he needed to have some apples while there, so he bought a box of fifteen fuji apples from Costco because “it was the best value.” Well, it may have been the best value per apple, but it wasn’t the best value overall because he spent more money than he would have had he bought from a regular grocery store only the one or two apples he wanted to eat, and he wouldn’t have had to force himself to eat more apples, take some apples home with him on the plane, ask my cousin to take some apples home with her, and then still end up throwing away some remaining apples (my parents wouldn’t be eating them).

This situation reminded me of a lot of the “Macs are expensive” debates in computing. Typically, some people will say “Macs are more expensive than Windows PCs,” which is then countered by others who say, “No, Macs are actually the same as or cheaper than similarly spec’ed Windows PCs,” which is usually countered with “No, they’re not.” Both sides give examples, and it ends up being a draw, since “similarly spec’ed” is almost never exactly the same specifications, and even if the specifications are exactly the same hardware-wise, Mac proponents will argue that the software that comes with the Mac (OS X and iLife) is superior to that which comes with the Windows PC.

Here are a couple of examples of such arguments:
Debunking the price myth: Apple vs. Dell
The truth about the costs of Macs vs. costs of PCs.

I’m not going to argue that Macs are more or less expensive than similarly spec’ed Windows PCs, because I think that argument is purely intellectual and not practical at all, just as my brother’s choice to buy fifteen fuji apples was looking at how good a theoretical deal he could get per apple instead of looking at how practical it is to eat fifteen apples in a two-day period.

The truth is that people don’t just buy a Windows PC or just buy a Mac. Most people tend to already be using a Windows PC, in which case they’re very likely to buy another Windows PC or they’ve already decided to switch to using a Mac—it’s not a toss-up between the two (Mexican food or Chinese tonight, dear?); it’s a serious choice between sticking with what you’re used to and have software for, and switching to something completely different. Same for Mac users. If you’re already using Macs, you’re very likely to buy another Mac. You’re not just going to buy a Windows computer because it’s cheaper. Nor is the reason you’ll stick with Mac because of its having a better value for similar specifications.

A lot of users don’t care about comparing similar specs. All they want is cheap, especially if a low-end computer for email, web browsing, and light word processing suits their needs. For these folk, a $499 Dell laptop will be a much better deal than a $1,099 Apple laptop, even if the Apple laptop is a “better value.”

For most computer users, the real considerations are these:

  • Can I do with a really cheap computer? Does it do everything I need it to do? Great. I’ll save money, then.
  • If I’m using Windows, do I want to keep using Windows? Or am I willing to switch to Mac?

Sometimes flexibility and familiarity matter more than “value.”

And, of course, if money’s a real issue, desktop Linux is worth at least a little exploration. With Linux-compatible hardware, your computer won’t be obsolete for years after it would be using Mac or Windows. As a regular Ubuntu user, I had to throw that last bit in…

Types of desktop Linux adoption barriers

I don’t want to get in another argument about what the “biggest” barrier to desktop Linux adoption is. What’s the point? Even if “big” could be quantified, who cares if one is the “biggest”? There are a lot of barriers, and they all work in tandem. These barriers to adoption rarely operate alone.

I won’t try to define what “average” means, but I will say that most people I know (friends, co-workers, relatives, acquaintances, etc.) have no idea that desktop Linux exists. Some haven’t heard the word Linux before. Some have heard the word Linux but have no idea what it is. Still others have heard of Linux but only in a server or embedded context. Good option, bad option—those debates are irrelevant to the mass populace. Linux, to them, isn’t a good or bad option; Linux is a non-option for home or business desktop use.

Among the Windows power users out there, desktop Linux is around as an idea. Some Windows power users have been itching to try desktop Linux. Some have tried it and given up on it. Others have made the migration. But almost all migrants from Windows to desktop Linux come with misconceptions about desktop Linux. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read new users perpetuating the myths that you have to be a programmer to install or use Linux, that you have to recompile the kernel to get hardware to work, or that you have to compile most programs from source.

The perception is still out there that desktop Linux distros are still geek OSes. Yes, I know that it’s still mostly geeks that use Linux right now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used by non-geeks. It just means that geeks are more likely to A) know Linux exists as a desktop option B) have the inclination to download, install, and configure a new operating system and C) troubleshoot problems that come with being an early adopter.

I don’t think that we should unnecessarily puff up desktop Linux as being easier than it is, as being for all users, or for suiting all users’ needs. But we should try to present a realistic portrait of the situation. Right now, all I see are the extremes in the media—desktop Linux will solve all your computing problems! or desktop Linux will never be ready for home users… only geeks can use it.

Even if you can overcome lack of awareness and overcome poor marketing, you still have to build trust. A lot of home users are distrustful of anything free. To many, free equals crappy (or, worse yet, spyware-laden). That’s why it’s best to introduce Windows users to quality open source Windows applications before mentioning anything about desktop Linux. A user who is familiar with and trusting of Windows versions of Firefox, OpenOffice, GIMP, FileZilla, Audacity, and Thunderbird is far more likely to be a successful migrant to desktop Linux. After all, most computer users don’t know what an operating system is. To them, a computer is the applications you run, not the system that allows you to run applications.

Learning curve
Some people can’t get past downloading application installers from the internet and then clicking through wizards. Even though centralized package management makes logical sense, you have to have an open mind to appreciate its benefits. Choice can seem overwhelming at first, but it can be an advantage instead of a hindrance.

Vendor Lock-in
If you’ve been reading my recent posts about my parents-in-law, you know that vendor lock-in can be a huge barrier to any migration (even to “user-friendly” Mac OS X). If a site requires Internet Explorer 7 to work properly, you need to use that site, and User Agent Switcher and IEs4Linux aren’t cutting it, then you need Windows. If you have a ton of iTunes store-bought DRM-constrained songs and you don’t want to break the law, you may be stuck using OS X or Windows. If you make your living with InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash; you may find it extremely difficult to do the same with Scribus, GIMP, Inkscape, and F4L.

Software insufficiencies
Yes, desktop Linux has flaws. Yes, there are GUI frontends that haven’t yet been developed or fully implemented. The good news is that developers are working on fixing these problems. Every six months, you see vast improvements—more GUI configuration options, better artwork, more polish.

Third-party support
Again, as you may know from the saga of my parents-in-law’s switch to Mac, the problem is not unique to desktop Linux. Mac, also having a single-digit marketshare, sometimes cannot plug-and-play with certain devices. Having trouble with ATI? Having trouble with Lexmark? Can’t get your Windows-only program working in Wine or Crossover Office? Well, that’s life when you’re using a relatively obscure and not widely used OS.

Need for facilitation
Dell is now shipping preinstalled Ubuntu laptops and desktops… only in the US. You just bought a Windows computer and don’t want to buy a new computer. You don’t want to bother with installing and configuring a new operating system. You don’t want to sift through compatibility lists to find good hardware to buy for a Linux distribution. You don’t know anyone who can fix your Linux problems, and you are not good at doing searches on Google. You don’t have a proper support infrastructure. Well, if any or all of the above apply, then you have no easy route to desktop Linux adoption.

In the Windows world we live in, stores worldwide (online and in-person) sell Windows computers. You probably have a Windows computer already. You probably have Windows-compatible hardware. You probably didn’t have to install or configure Windows. And you probably know a bunch of tech-savvy friends or relatives who can troubleshoot your Windows problems.

In the end…
No one of these barrier types is “the biggest.” They are all big and work together. A small market share goes hand in hand with unfamiliarity, lack of awareness, lack of third-party support, and software insufficiencies. All of those, in turn, help to keep the OS’s market share low, as does vendor lock-in. For those of us who do care about increasing desktop Linux adoption, the best we can hope for is many small strides made on all fronts.