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Using a Mac full-time: the good, the bad, and the pretty

I think most new Mac users come straight from Windows. I’m now using my wife’s old Macbook Pro as my main computer (pretty much as a desktop, since the battery life is abysmal), and my Ubuntu netbook (for portability). Here are some good and bad experiences I’ve had.

First, the good:

  • Audio simplicity. I can use Skype without worrying it won’t work with my PulseAudio config or having to recompile Alsa. I can get playback in MuseScore without having to deal with Jack (which I know nothing about).
  • Instantaneous wireless resume. With Ubuntu, I went back and forth between a few seconds after resume from sleep to get wireless up again all the way to a minute and a half, depending on the release (Jaunty was the worst, sometimes taking up to two minutes). I tried WICD. No better performance there. I resorted to all sorts of weird tweaks. At least resume was a bit quicker in Karmic. Even in Lucid beta 2, if you look at /usr/lib/pm-utils/sleep.d/55NetworkManager, you’ll see a comment in the top of the config file that says Make NetworkManager smarter about how to handle sleep/resume If we are sleep for less time than it takes for TCP to rest a connection, and we are assigned the same IP on resume, we should not break established connections. Apple can do this, and it is rather nifty. That comment’s been there at least since Jaunty. Don’t know if it was there in Intrepid or Hardy as well.
  • Magnetic power cord. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m a total klutz and have killed more than one power cord by tripping on it. It’s good to have that peace of mind with the magnetic power cord that just gets yanked out.
  • Sound quality. The speakers are great on the Macbook Pro. Nothing tinny like what I’ve experienced in other computers.
  • Smooth animation. Yes, Compiz has a lot of fancy effects, but there’s always something a little jerky or pixelated about everything “cool” I’ve seen in Linux.
  • Netflix streaming. It’s much better on a Mac than it is on PS3 or Wii. And it is, of course, just non-existent on Linux. Even though Macs can’t run all the software Windows can, it does seem to get more third-party support for consumer commercial stuff than Linux does.
  • Simple extended monitor. Haven’t done it recently, but this is my wife’s old Mac, so I have in the past, and it’s pretty simple to do extended desktop with an external monitor. Linux is getting there, but not quite.
  • Photo and music management. I know a lot of Linux users dig their Amarok or Exaile or whatnot. I’ve always, even back in my Windows-using days, liked iTunes. And since it supports drag and drop to USB devices, I can even use it with my Sandisk player. iPhoto is like a slightly more polished version of F-Spot (which I liked in Ubuntu).
  • Multi-touch touchpad. I use an HP laptop at work (with Windows) and have an HP Mini at home (with Ubuntu), and I don’t dig the one-finger scrolling on the side of the trackpad. Two-finger scrolling is great.
  • Simple USB drive renaming. You’d think it wouldn’t get much simpler than launching up GParted and changing the label on the drive and hitting Apply. It’s a lot easier on OS X, though. Just hit Enter to rename, type the new name, and hit Enter again. No separate program to launch.

Now, the bad:

  • Rainbow circle of death. This Macbook Pro has an over 2 GHz processor and 4 GB of RAM. There’s no reason I should ever be getting any kind of freeze-ups unless I’m running something from Adobe Creative Suite. But, no, even with just Finder, Firefox, and Thunderbird running, I can sometimes get the rainbow circle of death. xkill would be handy here, but Option-Cmd-Escape works, too.
  • Reboots for most updates. I’m used to needing a reboot for only kernel upgrades. I don’t know why Apple does this, but even for simple application updates, it wants to reboot the system.
  • Thunderbird ugly. I still prefer Thunderbird to Mail, but it’s not looking good on Mac, and the Thunderbird downloadable themes are not that great either.
  • Spaces not working correctly. I’m glad Apple decided to put workspaces on Mac OS X, considering Linux distros have had these for quite some time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite get it to work the way I wanted to. For a while, I could, but suddenly my keyboard shortcuts for switching workspaces just weren’t working. I think there are too many keyboard shortcut conflicts in OS X. I just gave up.
  • Hard drive icon always jutting out. I’m on a widescreen laptop, so my most valuable screen real estate is vertical. On a laptop, though, all screen space matters. So I moved the Dock to the right. But I want to have the hard drive icon line up with the Dock. Instead, it juts out a bit, no matter what settings I use for the grid, font, or icon size. I can live with it, but that’s annoying. I did find a neat trick online to get the Dock to go to the corner of the screen instead of floating in the middle, so the trash can is now in the lower-right corner. That’s nice.
  • Application and window management. I just don’t get the application not quitting when the window closes. So if I’m using the terminal and type exit, that means I’m done. And if it’s the last terminal window, I don’t see why I should have to hit Cmd-Q to quit fully. More importantly, I like being able to hit Cmd-Tab (or Control-Tab) to switch between open windows. If I have multiple windows open in one application, I don’t want to have to worry about first switching to that application (Cmd-Tab) and then switching to that particular window (Cmd-`). That’s too much fine-tuned control, and the Cmd-` keyboard shortcut just isn’t easy for my fingers to position themselves for.
  • Overheating. You can fry an egg on this laptop after ten minutes of use. It gets really hot. Now I know why my wife got a cooling pad for this. Fortunately, her new Macbook Pro seems to run a lot more coolly.
  • F keys messed up. F9 is supposed to be for Exposé, but now it’s apparently for dimming the backlighting on the keyboard. As far as I can tell, you can either have all the F keys turn into normal F keys, in which case Expose´ will work again for F9 but none of the volume and brightness keys will work, or you can keep the brightness and volume keys working and have F9 be for dimming the backlighting on the keyboard. Either way, you’ll have to resort to using Fn-F9 at one point to get the functionality you want.

So, yeah, some gains and some new niggles to deal with. I have Ubuntu Lucid installed in VirtualBox right now, so I’ll be playing around with that too, and I’ll probably install that on my netbook after official release so I can get updated screenshots for my tutorials.

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Made the move to Mac

As a follow-up to Why I might switch to Mac from Ubuntu, I did actually get a Mac… or, more precisely, my wife got a new Mac, and I inherited her old one.

Clarifications
Unfortunately, it seemed some of the commenters on that entry brought their own agendas and grudges without actually reading what I wrote. I have tried other distros, many of them, in fact—probably at least 20 distros over the past five years. You can read about some of my more recent failed attempts at trying non-Ubuntu distros. Two of my reasons for switching had nothing to do with Ubuntu specifically—that there were hardware regressions in the Linux kernel (and bugs in other upstream packages), and that the whole approach of the operating system development being wholly independent of the hardware development is a flawed approach if you want to increase adoption (which, incidentally, Ubuntu is trying to do, and not all Linux distros are).

To those who claim Macs “just work,” I have to disagree. For more details, read Macs are just computers, not magic and Macs are computers, not magic (part 2).

In terms of what happened in getting the new Mac, it’s been an interesting mix of positives and negatives (Can you believe it? Macs are not the holy grail, nor are they the devil incarnate).

The Apple Store
One of the nice things about the Apple store is that there are a lot of display models of various Apple products you can try out. So my wife and I got to spend considerable time playing around with the new Macbook Pro before we decided on purchasing it. More importantly, the sales staff appear to be trained on finding the right balance between being unavailable and being oversolicitous. A few annoying things about the sales staff, though:

  • They assume you know nothing about Macs, even if you are a long-time Mac owner (as my wife is).
  • They aren’t overly pushy, but they do try to upsell you (AppleCare, training programs, iWork, etc.).
  • They take every opportunity to bash so-called “PCs” in side comments (and by PC, they mean Windows PCs, because, as we all know, Macs aren’t personal computers, and Linux just doesn’t exist, nor does FreeBSD). Want to know where the stereotype of Mac users as being snobby zealots comes from? It comes from the Apple store employees (and from the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials). I like Mac and Linux and Windows. Is that a crime to like all three?

The Migration Experience
At home with the new Mac, we used the Migration Assistant to move my wife’s files, settings, and applications over to the new computer. I don’t know who at Apple is in charge of the Migration Assistant, but that person needs to be replaced. First, it prompts you to make the transfer via firewire. The new Macbook Pro doesn’t come with a firewire cable, though. We had an old firewire cable from an external hard drive, but apparently that’s the wrong kind. We tried to do the transfer via ethernet. We soon realized that was a mistake, as the transfer was going to take three hours. Unfortunately, Migration Assistant is set up so that you can’t do anything else on the computer while the migration is happening, and the time remaining arbitrarily goes up, stands still, or randomly drops. At one point, it said it was going to take four hours. So we canceled it by killing the Migration Assistant on the source Macbook Pro and then forcing a shutdown on the destination Macbook Pro. Then we did the Migration Assistant again but this time with just the settings and applications (not the files). The files we copied over manually from an external hard drive backup afterwards (during that copy, my wife could actually use her new computer).

Apart from the Migration Assistant process being godawful, the migration result itself is pretty good. The setup was exactly the way she had it on her old computer. Wireless keys remembered. Dock configured in the exact same way. Mail with all IMAP accounts set up. Wallpaper the same. It was an exact replica of her account on the old Mac. All the programs worked, including CS3 (I thought maybe that might need a new activation key or something).

Unfortunately, one thing that didn’t work (and this points to a major usability issue with Mac OS X, which is being able to resize windows from only one corner) was her window setting with iTunes. See, her old Macbook Pro was 15″ and this new one was 13″, so the iTunes window extended beyond what the screen could display. We couldn’t figure out how to drag the window past the universal toolbar (I thought maybe there might be an equivalent to Alt-mouse-drag in Linux, but couldn’t find one). Clicking the + button (which usually zooms in other applications) just toggled between full iTunes and the iTunes mini player. Finally, I did a Google search and found that you could go to window > zoom in the toolbar menu to get it to zoom (since the + button in iTunes acts in a way inconsistent with other OS X applications). Solved that. Annoying to have to solve.

Meanwhile, I was tailoring my wife’s old computer to suit my needs. I deleted all her design and font programs (she’s the graphic designer; I’m not). I got rid of Mail, Safari, and iCal. Put on Firefox, Chrome, Thunderbird, Transmission, and some other programs I found at Open Source Mac. I love the smooth animation (when importing photos in iPhoto, when switching applications) that I just never could get in Ubuntu, even with Compiz. I don’t like that I can’t toggle hidden files with Control-H (or even Cmd-H). I don’t like that Finder is an always-on application (meaning, when I’m switching applications with Cmd-Tab, I want to switch between only actual applications, and not the file browser if no file browser window is open). I had to install a third-party application to turn off the annoying boot-up noise.

Really, though, the main draws for me to my wife’s old laptop are not any OS X–specific features per se. What I like most are

  • The magnetic power cord, because I am a klutz and actually broke my HP Mini power cord recently.
  • The larger hard drive. Since the HP Mini was my main computer, it was kind of tough to deal with having only a 16 GB SSD, and the upgrade options for a 1.8″ 5mm PATA Zif hard drive aren’t wonderful.
  • The ability to do Netflix streaming (the PS3 fake-Bluray experience isn’t as good as the web browser experience). I guess you could argue that’s OS X–specific, in the sense that Netflix supports Mac OS X and doesn’t support Linux. It has nothing to do with the usability of the operating system design.

Unlike most Linux users, I have always been a fan of iTunes. I’ve used Foobar, WinAmp, Songbird, Exaile, Rhythmbox, AmaroK, JuK, Banshee, and all the rest. I still think iTunes is the best. But I’m going to keep buying songs through Amazon’s MP3 store, since I want to be able to easily port the music to my Sansa Clip or to Ubuntu, should I decide later to set up a dual-boot. I’m also going to be sticking with Android, even after my phone becomes “obsolete” (obsolescence is subjective, I guess). I do like the iPhone, but it’s a bit too restrictive. I like the xScope web browser, and I don’t see any free web browsers in the iTunes app store like it. I like having a rooted device without worrying that updates will constantly break my installation. I like being able to send certain contacts straight to voicemail. I like the Google Voice app (which Apple has rejected for the iPhone).

In Conclusion
Yes, I will continue to update my Ubuntu documentation on Psychocats. Don’t worry. I plan to have Ubuntu in VirtualBox on Mac OS X. I also still have my HP Mini around with Ubuntu on it. My wife and I don’t travel often, but when we do, a 10″ netbook is far more convenient to travel with than a 15″ laptop. So even though Mac OS X is now my main OS, I will continue to document and test Ubuntu. And, mpt, I don’t know if you got my email, but I would be interesting in helping the Ubuntu experience design team if that offer is still good.

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Why I might switch to Mac from Ubuntu

Who am I?
I’ve been using Ubuntu for almost five years now. I’ve offered some technical support on the Ubuntu Forums and been a moderator there off and on. I’ve maintained a new-user-targeted documentation site for every release of Ubuntu except the very first (4.10). I’ve also contributed to a few official Wiki pages. Even though nanotube did all the heavy lifting, I did help out a fair bit in at least the beginning stage of UbuntuZilla. I’ve filed bug reports at Launchpad. I’m not a programmer, but I feel I’ve contributed a fair bit to Ubuntu.

Why I was drawn to Ubuntu
I admire a lot of what Mark Shuttleworth has done. He has an enormous amount of wealth. A lot of people who don’t have a lot of wealth always think if they did that they would undoubtedly give away most of that money. It’s easy to give away other people’s money. It is not so easy to give away your own. My parents aren’t nearly as rich as Shuttleworth. Somehow, they managed to give a large percentage of their money away to church and to various charities, and still maintain a very comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle. My wife and I are struggling to make ends meet while also trying to give away to causes we deem worthy. To sink millions of pounds into what could have been a dead-end project is a risk that I admire Mark Shuttleworth taking. He could have been ridiculed. He could have lost a lot of money on nothing.

He had a vision, though. I liked that original vision. I liked the free CDs shipped anywhere. I liked the idea of one CD with one application per task, not a lot of confusing options, and sensible defaults. More importantly, I liked the idea of Ubuntu—humanity toward others, which showed quite well in the Ubuntu Forums. And Ubuntu was one of the few distros to try to strike a reasonable balance between the lofty ideals of Free software zealotry and the pragmatism of proprietarily-licensed software.

Where did Ubuntu go wrong?
For a while, I had high hopes for Ubuntu. Every release seemed to make Ubuntu more polished, every additional feature seemed to make Ubuntu more accessible for the Linux novice. A few things that have come up recently have made me a bit disillusioned with Ubuntu, though:

  • These days, decisions and “improvements” seem more like arbitrary changes instead of actual user experience improvements. Grub suddenly became less configurable, as did GDM. Notifications would appear and randomly disappear at odd times (for example, if my wireless reconnected, the notification would still say I was disconnected and then change to connected only about ten seconds after I’d actually reconnected).
  • My bug reports have really come to naught. A few years ago, if someone had complained on the Ubuntu Forums about a problem with Ubuntu, I would have been first in line to say “Complaining here won’t do any good. If you want to tell the developers, file a bug report.” After seeing that most of my bug reports have been unanswered or unfixed, sometimes for years, I don’t know that filing a bug report is really the best thing to do.
  • Brainstorm is a mess. Really, there isn’t an efficient way for developers to get proper feedback from users. If I, as a user, can’t make sense of Brainstorm’s thousands of ideas, how can the developers, who are busy developing?
  • I’ve seen too many hardware regressions. A lot of this isn’t Ubuntu’s fault. A lot of this is upstream. Regardless, upstream affects the Ubuntu experience. The real problem is that the Linux kernel tries to support everything well. There isn’t enough focus. So something that is in theory supposed to be Linux compatible (say, an Intel Pro Wireless 2200bg card) can work perfectly in one release, and then have random disconnects in the next two releases and then work perfectly again in the next release. Personally, I’ve had a Broadcom card that works and doesn’t work in alternating Ubuntu releases, and that makes no sense to me. If the problem is that hardware manufacturers aren’t making it easy for Linux developers to make drivers, then that hardware should never work. If, however, the hardware works in one Ubuntu release and doesn’t work in the next release, that is definitely the fault of Linux, whether it is the kernel team upstream or the Ubuntu team… or both.
  • Recent decisions have seemed to focus on whim or business more than user experience, particularly the change to Yahoo! as the default search engine in Firefox and the random moving of the window control buttons from right to left. I have no problem with change. I also have no problem with Ubuntu making money. But there seems to be an utter disregard for how changes affect users. A little more communication would help. More details here.
  • The most important thing is there doesn’t seem to be a real strategy in place for fixing Bug #1. Yes, there are power users who like to install their own operating systems and troubleshoot hardware compatibility issues. In order for your product to take off, though, it can’t be just an operating system. It has to be a product. It has to be something people can purchase. And the limited options from Dell (which recommends Windows, even on the Linux parts of its website) don’t cut it. They also aren’t created by Ubuntu. They just use Ubuntu. Recently, Google released the Nexus One as its idea of hardware matching perfectly the software in Android. There is no Ubuntu equivalent. There isn’t hardware designed to be the ultimate Ubuntu experience. I’ve heard various Ubuntu advocates propose making a Ubuntu commercial. What’s the point, though? If someone saw a Ubuntu commercial, she couldn’t just go and buy Ubuntu, especially in certain countries. The options are limited or non-existent. And hardware compatibility is iffy (Dell still uses Broadcom cards… I have a Broadcom card in my Ubuntu preinstalled HP Mini, which HP no longer makes, by the way).

The straw that broke my camel back
This window button move in Ubuntu 10.04 is really indicative of a bad way Ubuntu is headed. Defaults matter. One of the things I liked about Ubuntu, as I stated before, is its sensible defaults. I don’t have to agree with everything the Ubuntu teams decide or that Mark Shuttleworth decides. That’s fine. You want GIMP out… I don’t agree with it, but I at least understand the rationale behind the decision (it takes up a lot of space on the disk, and most people do not need the crazy power-user features GIMP offers as a photo editor). This decision about the window controls came out of nowhere and had no apparent rationale. Instead of getting good reasons for the change, all we got was… nothing for a while. We got some people saying “Hey, it’s different” or “Just get used to it” or “You can change it back easily if you want.” These aren’t reasons for a change. These are coping strategies. If a change happens, there should be good reason for it. Look, I get Shuttleworth saying Ubuntu is not a democracy. It doesn’t have to be a democracy, though. How about, as self-appointed benevolent dictator for life, just explaining why you made a decision? People don’t have to agree with your decision, but at least if they have a reason for it, they are more likely to accept it. How about, even though you have the power and right to not listen to people, just soliciting feedback?

It took a lot of pressing from users to get Shuttleworth to talk a bit more about what kind of “feedback” and “data” he was looking for. He said at least that the decision wasn’t final, and he wanted genuine data. Based on his remarks in this bug report, it really does seem, though, that he has made up his mind that this is what is going to happen, regardless of what data and feedback people present him with—especially when people present a lot of legitimate points against the move, and then he just replies “And the major argument against it appears solely to be ‘we’re used to it here.'” For more details on those legitimate points, take a look at this and this.

Democracy v. Dictatorship = false dichotomy
In case anyone’s wondering, there are more than two options out there. You don’t have to put every decision to a vote. And you don’t have to totally disregard community input. You don’t have to try to please everyone or please no one. And you don’t have to be subject to mob rule if you offer a little transparency.

My advice to Shuttleworth for the future would be if you want to make a unilateral change, just be open about what your reasons are for it. You can be a strong leader without pissing off large segments of your user base. Just say “I want to change this a bit, because I think it offers X, Y, and Z usability improvements. I realize a change is difficult for everyone, and I also concede there are A, B, and C tradeoffs in making the change. The tradeoffs are worth it, though. Ultimately, the decision rests with me and the desktop experience team. Nevertheless, I would like to hear your concerns about the change, and the best way for you to communicate your concerns is through methods D and E.” Would that be so difficult? Any time you make a change, there will always be some people unhappy about it. You can still make the process a little less heated with just some communication and openness. After all, on your webpage, you say “Ubuntu is a community developed operating system that is perfect for laptops, desktops and servers.” Your millions of pounds help make Ubuntu happen. We all know that. Keep in mind that it would behoove you to not piss off your user base, as the success of Ubuntu can’t be bought with pounds alone. Millions of users contribute to Ubuntu in many ways as well.

Why Mac?
When I voiced opposition to this latest change in Ubuntu, I got a lot of “Ubuntu is not a democracy” and “You can always use something else.” Well, as I just explained, you can very well have a non-democracy that is still community-focused. I hope Mark Shuttleworth will reconsider for the future his approach to communicating (or not communicating, in this instance) with the larger Ubuntu communities. Really, though, if I’m going to be using an operating system maintained by a dictator, I might as well go for one who understands that 1) hardware and software planned together make for a better user experience and 2) even if users don’t agree with his design decisions, he should still have rationales for those decisions.

I can’t even tell you how many design decisions I disagree with Apple about (resize only from bottom right corner, zoom instead of maximize, disk image mounting for software installation, dock icons in poof of smoke when dragged off dock, etc.). You know what, though? Each one of those decisions I disagree with I also understand the rationale for. More importantly, I like how Apple doesn’t like to tackle too much at once. Instead of trying to support all hardware and then having regressions on various theoretically “supported” devices, Apple realizes it’s better to have a great experience on a limited number of devices.

And the attention to detail is impressive. The magnetic cord I love. I am a total klutz and can’t tell you how many cords I’ve ruined by tripping on them or tugging them the wrong way. In fact, I just broke my HP Mini cord this weekend and had to order a replacement cord. Not so with the magnetic cord on my wife’s Macbook Pro. When the Macbook is sleeping, the power light fades slowly in and out instead of doing a hard off and on blink. The power button is flush with the frame of the laptop and not jutting out. The sound quality is always good on Mac laptop speakers. There’s a lot to admire about Apple approach. It is one great way to present an integrated hardware-software computer experience. My hope was that someone would present another great way. We’ll see if that ever happens.

Am I abandoning Free software?
Not really. First of all, I don’t know that I’m going Mac. Macs are expensive, so I’d have to save up for one. Even if I do go Mac, though, my Mac experience would be very different from my wife’s Mac experience. For one thing, I might dual-boot with Linux Mint. And even if I stick with Mac OS X, I will use Thunderbird instead of Mail, Firefox instead of Safari, OpenOffice instead of iWork, and my Android phone instead of an iPhone (Cyanogen’s rooted rom has made me really appreciate the Android platform even though the iPhone has its advantages too). No change has to be permanent, though. If Ubuntu comes around or changes the way it does business, or if some other Linux distro focuses its energy on preinstallation and proper marketing/distribution, and thorough hardware compatibility testing on a few select models, I might make my way back. In the meantime, if I go Mac, don’t worry—I’ll still be making my Ubuntu tutorials. A bad decision though the window control switch is, it’s probably not bad enough for most Ubuntu users to actually abandon Ubuntu at this point. For me, it was a tipping point. It’s been a good five years.

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Apple and Mac OS X Computers

An unbiased view on Macs

I don’t know why it’s so difficult to find honest, unbiased views on Mac OS X and Apple computers. I know a lot of Mac fanatics and anti-Mac fanatics. I regularly participate in a Linux forum (the Ubuntu Forums, specifically), and it seems to be the same deal there—some users making it sound as if Mac OS X is the be-all and end-all of computing experiences, and some making it sound as if Macs are just the biggest ripoff that Apple can get away with.

Are non-Apple users just ignorant people waiting to be (or too poor to be) enlightened? Are Mac owners unthinking sheep who just do whatever Steve Jobs says?

Why can’t it be somewhere in between? Why can’t we acknowledge that Macs have some good points and some bad points? As I have mentioned before on my blog, Macs are computers. They are not magic. They are not garbage either.

Here is what I consider to be the God’s-honest-truth as the good and bad of Macs, and this is from someone who uses Mac OS X and Linux at home, and who uses Windows at work.

The Price
The entry level for purchasing a Mac is very high compared to purchasing a Windows PC. This should be an incontestable fact. If you compare spec-for-spec on low- to middle-end hardware, the Windows PCs will be cheaper for sure. As you get into more high-end hardware (the most suped-up Macbook Pro, the most suped-up Mac Pro), you’re far more likely to get a better deal with the Mac than the Windows PC.

What I have stated above I have observed by comparing many Windows systems to Mac systems over the years. Once you present a Mac fanatic with actual dollar amounts, you get the backpeddling about the difference in money being worth it and about Mac OS X coming with iLife and Windows having nothing like Garageband. You also get the anti-Mac fanatic proclaiming that Mac is overpriced garbage and Apple is ripping off its customers.

I don’t want to get into questions of whether the price difference is “worth it” or not. That is something each computer user must decide for herself. Right now I just want everyone to agree—Macs are usually more expensive than Windows PCs with similar hardware specifications.

What does this mean? Usually, not a whole lot. As I said before, most Mac fans will pay the difference anyway and think it’s worth it, and most anti-Mac fans will refuse to pay the difference. If you’re on the fence, though, and like Mac OS X and Windows Vista equally (i.e., if you are marginal and almost non-existent segment of the population), then I would say if you have basic needs (email, web browser, word processor, photos, music) and have only a little money, go for a cheap Windows PC (or even a Linux PC). Otherwise, go for a Mac PC. Simple. Isn’t it?

Hardware
I’ve heard many a Mac fanatic say Apple charges more for Macs because the hardware is superior to non-Apple PCs. I’ve also heard many an anti-Mac fanatic say Macs have exactly the same hardware Windows PCs have.

I have found the exterior hardware for Macs to generally be well-thought-out and well-designed. In that sense, the exterior hardware is superior. The edges seem to be smooth and aesthetically pleasing. The weight seems to be reasonably light for the size. The blinking light for sleep mode is not obnoxiously bright (it slowly fades in and out instead of blinking on and off). The power cord for laptops is magnetic (and, yes, I am, like many others, clumsy, and I do trip on power cords, so it’s nice to have the cord pop out without breaking when that happens). The power button is never too small to press, and it’s flush with the surface so as not to be too obtrusive. The laptops all have backlit keyboards and high-resolution displays.

But the interior hardware is exactly the same as the interior hardware in non-Apple computers. I’ve seen hard drive failures in Macs just as often as in Windows PCs. That’s because those are hard drives manufactured by the same people who manufacture hard drives for Windows or Linux computers. The RAM isn’t some special RAM made by Apple. The graphics cards are regular graphics cards also in Windows PCs. Macs use Intel, Nvidia, Seagate—all the regular brand names in Windows PCs.

Apple does put a lot of care into making sure laptop speakers aren’t tinny and webcams work in low light. The hardware is always well put together. That doesn’t mean the hardware is of a superior build.

Customer Experience
I don’t agree with Apple’s closing off (via End User’s License Agreement) of people using Mac OS X on non-Apple computers. I do, however, agree with their being proponents of tightly integrating the software and hardware by limiting the supported hardware options and thus making it easier for OS X developers to optimize the operating system (it doesn’t have to work on everything, just these few models). I wish Ubuntu went this route. The Linux kernel, of course, does try to support as much hardware as possible, but it’d be nice if the Ubuntu developers could especially vouch for no bugs or regressions occurring in certain Ubuntu-supported laptops and desktops.

Of course, Apple does sometimes take it too far. They don’t say “Oh, install it on whatever you want, but we support only these models.” They say “These models only. Only our computers. No other computers.” And that’s generally the Apple way, which is good and bad. If you play the Apple way and don’t mind those restrictions, it can be a very good experience, because you don’t have to worry about anything. If you buy an Apple TV, an Airport Extreme, an Apple Cinema Display, an iPhone, and a Macbook, you know they’re all going to play nice together.

The flip side of that is that you may not get as good support or as seamless an experience with non-Apple products. Maybe the wireless card in your Macbook Pro isn’t playing nice with the WPA encryption on your D-Link router. If that happens, do you think Apple is going to say “So sorry. We will work on getting that working as soon as possible?” No. They’re going to say “It should work, but if you want to make sure it works, buy this Airport Extreme instead.”

It’s certainly possible to use non-Apple peripherals with an Apple computer, but you will constantly get the message from Apple “use our stuff, use our stuff,” and they’ll have very little sympathy for you not using their stuff.

User Interface
Even though Mac OS X’s interface has some nice touches (uninstalling applications by just deleting the application icon from the Applications folder, being able to drag and drop files to an application icon to launch the file in that application), I’ve generally found Mac OS X does not have an intuitive user interface. But I’ve also found that intuitiveness is highly overrated. There are counterintuitive aspects to Windows and Linux as well. These counterintuitive parts of Mac OS X are surmountable, but I do get annoyed when Mac fanatics keep repeating that Mac OS X is intuitive, when it is not. Here are some bits that are counterintuitive. If you can get over these quickly, maybe a Mac may be good for you:

  • Enter renames files. Cmd-O opens them.
  • Double-clicking an application download does not install the application. It mounts the application into a disk image container that has inside the application files that should then be dragged into the Applications folder.
  • Dragging icons from the Dock to the desktop does not move or copy the icons. It makes them disappear in a poof of smoke.
  • Even though you can cut and paste text or copy and paste files, you cannot cut and paste files through the menus or through a universally recognized keyboard shortcut (like Cmd-X, which works for cutting text).
  • Dragging mounted volumes to the trash ejects them.
  • The plus sign on a window has no consistent or predictable behavior. “Zooming” is pretty much useless (supposedly, it adjust the window size to fit the contents of the window, but if the content size changes, the window does not dynamically shift to refit the contents), and in iTunes you don’t even get a zoom—you get a switch between mini player and normal player.
  • Closing the last window of an application does not close the application. This can be useful for some applications, but it doesn’t make sense for most of them.
  • Windows can be resized from only one corner (and that corner may well be behind the Dock).
  • There is no keyboard shortcut to access the toolbar menu.
  • The symbols for certain keyboard keys are confusing (option, control, command, shift).
  • The toolbar is for applications and not for windows within in application. This sounds great in theory… until you are using a huge monitor or extended desktop.

One thing I will give Apple, though—they seem to have put a lot of thought into their interface decisions. For every counterintuitive tidbit I see, I also can easily imagine a rationale for it. A lot of it sounds good in theory but just works out poorly in practice.

Looks
Why doesn’t it matter to Mac users that Mac OS X is counterintuitive in so many ways? Well, apart from the fact that people just get used to counterintuitive interfaces and deal with it, Mac OS X is a beautiful interface, and that beauty makes a lot of its users overlook the counterintuitive aspects. Now I’ve heard many a Linux user say Compiz looks much better than Mac OS X and can do fancier stuff. In screenshots, yes, I have seen some amazing-looking Compiz themes. And, yes, Compiz can do fancier things (raindrops, wobbly windows, spinning cubes).

But Mac OS X has really smooth animation that I have never seen in Compiz. Everything seems to just flow. I rarely see excessive pixelation in icons or stuttered movement when dragging things. And even though a lot of Linux users I’ve “met” online think Aqua is ugly, every person I know in “real” life thinks Mac OS X just looks amazing. I love the high resolution icons, and I’d love for my Linux computer to look just that way (and not a single Mac clone theme I’ve encountered over the years has come close to the real thing).

One thing I will say against the Mac OS X look is that it isn’t very easily customizable. If you’re into customization, I don’t know if Macs will be your bag, though.

I’ve also not seen any real performance gains in OS X. I think all the Mac users claiming Macs are faster than (Windows) PCs must have had malware-infested Windows installations. If anything, I’ve found OS X to require (perhaps like Windows Vista, as opposed to Windows XP) a lot of RAM in order to perform adequately. The smooth animations I mentioned before may also contribute to perceived notions of better performance or speed.

Security
Here is another area where I rarely see balance presented. On the one hand, you have some Mac fanatics saying Macs are nigh-invincible—use a Mac, and you won’t have to worry about any malware. Go on your merry way! On the other hand, you have some anti-Mac fanatics saying Macs offer no security advantages over Windows, and the only reason Macs haven’t been exploited as much as that they aren’t as big a target for malware writers.

The truth is somewhere in between. Yes, a larger marketshare does make you a juicier target for malware, but Macs do generally have better security than Windows, especially Windows XP. Macs are not invincible. You do still have to use strong passwords, not enable extra network services, install security updates, back up your files regularly (note: antivirus is as useless on Macs and Linux PCs as it is on Windows PCs). But Macs implement sudo, which allows administrators to operate as a limited user and temporarily escalate (after a password authentication) to root privileges. Unlike Windows Vista’s UAC, this isn’t annoying, and it also cannot be easily turned off.

Unfortunately, since more and more malware uses social engineering (i.e., tricking the user instead of exploiting software vulnerabilities), Mac OS X will be compromised more and more (as we recently saw with the trojans in pirated copies of iWork and Photoshop) if Mac users continue to be complacent about security.

Security isn’t just the best or non-existent. There are many shades in between (good, okay, bad), and if you have an ignorant and gullible user who can be tricked into installing software from untrustworthy sources, then all your operating system security goes out the window anyway.

I’ll also say that if you are a Windows user who is considering going to Mac for only security purposes, don’t bother. If you like Mac OS X for other reasons, that’s fine. If you actually like Windows, there are some easy ways to make Windows just as secure as a Mac (use a limited user account, install Windows updates, use Firefox with the NoScript extension, get rid of useless antivirus software, turn off autorun, etc.). And if you’re just looking for an alternative to Windows, most Linux distributions actually have more robust security than Mac OS X, and they’re free.

This is like that lie about Macs not crashing. If you have a problem with Windows crashing, you’re either using Windows ME, or you don’t know how to secure your Windows installation (see tips in last paragraph). Occasional crashes might happen on any OS, though. I’ve seen the blue screen of death on Windows XP about as much as I’ve seen the rainbow circle of death on Mac OS X or the black screen of death on Ubuntu Linux. Crashes happen. Get over it.

Application availability
If you are part of a small minority of computer users who uses computers for high-end commercially created gaming (instead of using a game console or just not gaming at all, like the rest of us), then of course you will use Windows. If you use Windows-only applications, you should use Windows. But if you are reliant on only cross-platform applications, then you can choose from Windows, Mac, or Linux.

And for all those Mac users who say “Oh, you have all these Windows-only applications? That’s what boot camp is for,” are you really going to suggest people buy a Mac only to install Windows on it?

The applications you use should be one of the primary reasons you pick an OS. If you need specialized software, make sure it works on the operating system you pick! Only if you are like me (email client, web browser, office suite, photo manager, music player) can you pick from any OS on the market.

Is Mac OS X for you?
Unfortunately, despite my long rant about the pros and cons, I don’t think anyone should make a computer purchasing decision based on what people say on the internet. (Unfortunately, with the dearth of Linux netbooks available in brick-and-mortar stores, I had to do that.) If you are a Windows user thinking about moving to Mac, don’t believe the Mac fanatics, and don’t believe the anti-Mac fanatics. Go to an Apple store and try it out yourself. See how you like it. If you don’t have an Apple store near you, just find someone with a Mac and ask to try it out (it helps if you say you’re thinking about getting one… it also helps if you’re in a public place like a coffee shop and not in some dark alley).

I’m a big Linux fan, and I prefer open source software, so I won’t be switching to Mac full-time, but I do enjoy the time I spend on my wife’s Mac (which has made it financially impossible for me to also get a Mac, anyway). It is a good user experience. It’s not perfect. It’s not magic. It’s not god-awful. It’s just good. Same as Windows. Same as Linux. Just use what works for you.

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Apple and Mac OS X Computers

Tech “journalism” strikes again: of course Apple will recommend antivirus eventually

A self-proclaimed analyst at CNET has predicted that Apple will recommend antivirus.

Apart from the fact that Apple already did recommend antivirus a few months ago (but has since removed that page), isn’t that quite obvious? Some prediction. Unfortunately, the reasoning for that recommendation makes me wonder what Jon Oltsik is analyzing. Here are the reasons he gives for Apple recommending antivirus, and they’re all pretty much baseless:

Macs users are a lucrative target. Mac owners tend to affluent and Net savvy [sic]. To the bad guys, this means identities to steal and broadband connections to exploit.

If Mac users tend to be net-savvy, then why are their machines being compromised? Why don’t they have mechanisms in place to protect themselves from identity theft? If Macs are currently such a great target for malware, why is there so little malware out there for Macs now?

Organized cybercrime is diversifying. Cybercriminals tend to work as a loose confederation with each group specializing in a certain task. There are malware writers, botnet owners, mules, etc. Some entrepreneurial bad guy is bound to see a green field market in Mac cybercrime, recruit Mac hackers, develop expertise, and market these capabilities. If there is an equivalent of a cybercrime venture capital firm, they are probably looking at business plans like this already.

Diversifying ways to compromise machines doesn’t mean you attack multiple platforms. That’s just more work for very little return.

Macs are growing in the enterprise. In many large firms, Macs make up about 5 percent of endpoints. If the bad guys infect these systems, they can troll the network looking for other vulnerabilities and juicy data at will.

How about if the bad guys infected the machines that make up 95% of endpoints? Wouldn’t that give them more “juicy data”?

Macs are fairly easy to hack. In March as part of a contest, security expert Charlie Miller won $5,000 for exploiting a hole in Safari in about 10 seconds. If he can do this in 10 seconds, how many techies can do it in an hour? This is a frightening thought to me.

Okay, now this is totally ridiculous. Charlie Miller didn’t just walk into that competition and find a hole in 10 seconds. He knew about that hole for over a year and then exploited it in 10 seconds (in his own words: “It was an exploit against Safari 4 and it also works on Safari 3. I actually found this bug before last year’s Pwn2Own but, at the time, it was harder to exploit”). There’s a big difference there.

And all operating systems have security holes. That’s why Microsoft, Apple, and even Linux distribution maintainers all issue regular updates and patches.

I don’t understand why people imagine that you either have an unprotected computer or you have antivirus. (Or they think that an operating system that ever has a security hole is necessarily as insecure as another operating system with security holes.) Antivirus and protection are not the same thing. They’re not even similar. Antivirus does not offer you any real security at all. Don’t believe me? Go ask all the Windows users infected with malware what antivirus they’re running. Odds are that almost all of them will have some kind of fancy schmancy “security” software installed… software that did nothing to protect them.

Mac OS X isn’t a model in the best security, but its defaults are certainly better than Windows’ defaults. No operating system is invincible, and that includes Mac OS X. But Mac users will be no more protected with antivirus software than they will be without it. Know what the latest security breaches were for Macs? Trojans. Do you know how useful antivirus is against gullible users installing pirated software? Not at all.

Trojans rely on social engineering, and no operating system “security” can stop that, because the security hole is the user, not the computer. If the user can be tricked into giving away her password or giving a bad program access to system files, then you can have all the proper permission level separation or “security” suites in the world, and they will all be for naught. Have NoScript installed? She’ll whitelist every site. Have an algorithm for guessing malware? It’ll give so many false positives that she’ll learn to ignore its warnings.

Why will Apple eventually recommend antivirus? Plain and simple—because antivirus software is the most successful placebo ever introduced to the mass populace. As Mac marketshare continues to grow, more and more trojans will pop up, and more and more gullible users will keep installing them, and Apple will finally have to admit that Macs are just computers and not magic. But instead of saying “Users are stupid and need education,” they’ll toe the party line and recommend people install useless antivirus software, just as Microsoft does now. At least then they can enter into lucrative business partnerships with antivirus software companies.

Break out the sheepskin condoms, people.

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Asus Eee PC Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Should Linux users hush up about Microsoft?

Someone linked to Good Linux Users Don’t Talk About Microsoft on the Ubuntu Forums. I started to type up a reply, and then it got so long that I figured it was more of a blog entry than a forum post. Besides, who wants to hear about our broken toilet flush, anyway?

Okay, let’s see. So “good Linux” users can’t bash Microsoft, but “bad Linux users” can be bashed as morons? Okay. I don’t really see how that works.

I do agree that if Linux users want others to use Linux (and not all Linux users say they do) they should focus more on what Linux can do than on what Windows can’t do. It’s the same for anything in life, really. You have more respect for a political candidate who says “I’m going to do this, this, and that good things” instead of “My opponent has done this, this, and that bad things.”

But it’s only natural for people to compare two competing alternatives, especially if most of the users of one alternative used to use (or still use) the dominant product. If almost every Toyota owner used to own a Honda, then you bet you’d hear a lot of Honda-bashing from Toyota owners.

I see this a lot with Mac users, too. There are some very vocal anti-Microsoft and anti-Windows Linux users online, but in person all the Linux users I know are pretty level-headed about things (use what works for you, I prefer Linux), and the most vocal anti-Microsoft and anti-Windows sentiment I hear in real (in-person) life is from Mac users who were former Windows users.

It’s the same trick that the bully from elementary school used to use. You put others down to make yourself feel better. Well, if you’re not 100% sure you like your new choice, you may feel tempted to put down your former choice to reassure yourself you made the right new choice. It’s like when people start reminiscing about their exes and then a friend says “Oh, he was such a jerk anyway. You’re so much better without him.” He may, in fact, have been a jerk, but why do you need such assurance that you’re doing better now? It’s because there’s a little part of you that wonders whether you should still be with him. And for every Linux or Mac user who does spend the bulk of her energy putting down Windows, I often wonder if that’s where it’s coming from.

I kind of see both sides of it. On the one hand, there are many deplorable things Microsoft does, and there are many things I don’t like about Windows. It doesn’t make sense to ignore corporate bullying practices, vendor lock-in, or bad default security practices. On the other hand, focusing your energy solely on what “the competition” is doing wrong isn’t a good “sell” for your own “product.” You should spend most of your energy talking about what Linux is good for.

This goes to a larger sociological issue when it comes to operating systems. You see a lot of dumb back-and-forth arguments about “Which is better, Mac or [understood to be Windows] PC?” or “Is Linux ready for the desktop?” Well, obviously no one’s going to come to a unanimous conclusion, because there is none. No one operating system can be everybody’s preference or suit everyone’s needs. And no one operating system needs to.

My wife can love her Mac OS X and that doesn’t bother me. I can love my Ubuntu and not bother others with it. And our friends can use Windows to their heart’s content, and I won’t bother them. As a matter of fact, even though I prefer Ubuntu, I use Windows at work every day, and I divide my home time almost equally between my wife’s Macbook Pro (with Mac OS X) and my own Eee PC (with Ubuntu). So I’m familiar with all three operating systems and can appreciate their respective pros and cons.

If someone says “Do you think Linux is ready for the desktop?” I would probably respond “I don’t think there’s a definite answer to that. It’s better to tell me what your computer habits and budget are, and then I can tell you whether a Mac, a Windows PC, or a Linux PC is best for you.”

The key is really being able to talk intelligently about what works for whom instead of trying to pit operating systems in a battle out of which only one winner can emerge.

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Web Browsers

Safari 4 has almost caught up to other browsers

When I read the features in the new Safari 4 beta, I got really excited. My wife uses Safari on her Mac because when she first started using OS X, Firefox and Camino weren’t very stable (the user profiles kept getting corrupt). Now Firefox is much better, and she uses it at work for the web developer extension, but she still uses Safari at home.

Well, I kind of twisted her arm to give Safari 4 beta a try. A lot of the new features sound exciting. It has a tab bar on top to save vertical space (just like Google Chrome). It has a “speed dial” page of your most frequently visited websites (just like Opera and Chrome). Its speed dial is very slick-looking, though (reminiscent of Exposé or the album browser in iTunes).

It still has two major shortcomings, though.

  • Although there is an entry in History for restoring the tabs from last session, there is no setting to have the tabs from last session automatically get restored every time you start the browser.
  • Typing phrases in the address bar doesn’t search for them. Instead, you still get a page saying the URL isn’t found, and then a prompt to search for the phrase. Why not just search instead of adding that extra step? Pretty much every major browser does this (Firefox, Opera, Camino, Chrome). Why not Safari?

Well, I’m glad Apple has put in at least a little more effort into making Safari a better browser. Maybe Safari 5 will actually bring some innovative features instead of just playing catch-up.

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Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Do comparisons have to be fair?

If you’ve spent any time on a Linux forum, you know people there love to debate about Linux v. Windows v. Mac OS X. Throw in the term user-friendly or easier, and you’ll likely fan the flames so they can be put out only by a discussion thread closure.

One type of objection Linux defenders often raise is the idea of a fair comparison. For example, someone may assert that Windows “just works” out of the box and that Ubuntu is difficult to install and doesn’t detect everything. To be fair, a Linux defender responds, people generally buy computers with Windows preinstalled and preconfigured by the OEM (Dell, HP, etc.), and you’re comparing a preconfigured operating system to one you’re installing and configuring yourself.

Obviously, the Linux defender, in this case, has a point. After all, if you install Windows from scratch and don’t have all the necessary drivers available, it’s actually a nightmare to install and configure, much more so than Ubuntu is. Even if you do have the necessary driver CDs, it’s less of a nightmare but takes an extremely long time to set up.

It is worth exploring, though, whether we have to make fair comparisons or not. Yes, Windows is a pain to install and configure yourself, but if most people never have to install Windows themselves, how relevant is that point?

Imagine, if you will, a new fast food chain trying to unseat McDonald’s, or a new everything-store trying to topple Wal-Mart. Well, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart will have the advantages of name-brand recognition, infrastructure, inertia, and low prices (due to economies of scale). It wouldn’t be enough to say “My fast food tastes better than McDonald’s'” or “My store has employees who are happier than those at Wal-Mart.” That doesn’t mean you can compete. It also makes little sense to say, “Well, people who don’t want to shop at my store because of travel distance aren’t making a fair comparison, since Wal-Mart is already well-established and has stores all over, and I have only one store so far.” While someone may be understanding that you have difficulty gaining customers who live within ten miles of a Wal-Mart and five hundred miles away from your store, they’re still not going to drive five hundred miles to get to you.

The major flaw in my analogy, of course, is that the customer isn’t going to complain that the store is five hundred miles away. Customers understand that it’s hard to compete with well-established businesses… even if they ultimately choose the well-established business over the “underdog.”

So there are two sides to this. On the one hand, disgruntled would-be migrants to Linux from Windows should recognize that difficulties migrating do not always have to do with quality of workmanship—a lot of the problems Linux faces for impressing home users have to do with Microsoft (like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart) being the dominant force in home computing. Just as Wal-Marts are “everywhere” and the new store has only one location, Windows computers for home users are everywhere and supported by almost all major hardware and software vendors. You can stick with Windows if you want, but you do have to understand that it’s hard to unseat what has inertia and lots of money and name recognition.

At the same time, Linux advocates like myself need to remind ourselves that fair comparisons are fair only in theory and are often contrived and meaningless. Yes, a Windows installation can be difficult without driver CDs, but most Windows users won’t install Windows themselves, and a large percentage of Windows users who do install Windows will also have driver CDs for their hardware.

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Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

The effectiveness of “security through obscurity”

I don’t believe that security through obscurity is ideal or ultimately effective. I don’t believe it’s a generally good security approach. Nevertheless, it is not often the same as no security at all. Security through obscurity can have its place.

A few years ago, when it was brought to light that the newest (at the time) Ubuntu version stored the administrative password in plain text, that incident was a huge embarrassment to Ubuntu developers, and they fixed the security hole within hours of it having been brought to their attention. Nevertheless, it had been in place for months prior to being brought to the developers’ attention. Were any Ubuntu installations compromised because of this bug? Probably not.

Likewise, most people don’t know that physical access to a computer means (except in rare cases) total administrative access. If you encrypt your drive, you can prevent unauthorized access to your files. If you put a password on the BIOS and disable booting from CD, you can slow down or make more inconvenient the unauthorized access. Maybe that’ll stop people from compromising your computer if you’re away from it for only a few minutes.

Many users are naive to just what prolonged physical access means, though, in terms of security, and that’s dangerous, because then security through obscurity works against you. I used to believe (before I started using Linux) that having my laptop prompt me for a password upon waking the computer would mean that if my laptop were ever stolen, no one could get my files. Before I booted a Knoppix CD on his laptop, my dad used to think a fingerprint scanner would prevent people from seeing his files. In these cases, the “security” is obscured for the user and not the thief.

If a thief makes her living by taking the data off your computer (probably for the purposes of identity theft) and not solely by selling the hardware, she probably knows exactly how to access your data, whether it be resetting the BIOS password, booting from a live CD, or even moving the hard drive to another computer.

There have been quite a few debates about whether recovery mode in Ubuntu should exist or perhaps be hidden by default. In Windows, if you need emergency administrative access, you need to boot a CD. In Mac OS X, you have to know the relatively obscure hold-down-Cmd-S-while-booting procedue to get into recovery mode. In Ubuntu, though, it’s right there in the boot menu. Just press the down arrow once and you’re in recovery mode, which means you have root (or total administrative) access to the computer.

On the one hand, obscuring recovery mode might give people a false sense of security (thinking it’s difficult to gain root access). On the other hand, having it in the boot menu kind of advertises it, and you might have a curious sibling or roommate who selects it and starts getting playful on the command-line, and she might not have done so if it weren’t in her face the way it is.

Outside of the computer world, it’s a bit like keeping the key to your house underneath the welcome mat. Doing so is definitely bad security. On the other hand, most people won’t know exactly where you keep your key or if you keep it under the welcome mat at all. If you post up a big sign next to your door saying “Hey, the key is underneath this welcome mat!” you’ll be sure to have your home broken into.

When it comes to computer security, definitely encryption and restriction of physical access should be publicized more as real security options, but I do believe there are tradeoffs to embracing and eschewing security through obscurity. Just make sure you are obscuring access for others and not for yourself.

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux

Ubuntu: The Open Source Apple Challenger?

Mark Shuttleworth’s vision
I know I’m not the only Ubuntu user blogging about Mark Shuttleworth saying he wants to make Ubuntu better-looking than OS X in the next two years. He also says

I can’t say we will succeed at this, but we will make a significant attempt to elevate the Linux desktop to the point where it is as good or better than Apple. We’ll also open up the debate to a broad community, rather than just software engineers—we’ll preserve the bazaar, but also redefine what success means for this particular crowd, so things are not just stable but also lovely. We can’t outspend Microsoft or Apple in terms of user-interface studies or the like, but we can invest in this.

I have a lot of respect for Mark Shuttleworth. He made a lot of money off open source, saw and filled a niche in the Linux community, and recognized the need for a balance between being a total corporate sellout and a total free software zealot.

But I think he’s either, in recent interviews, not sharing his total vision for Ubuntu, or not realizing why people like Mac OS X.

What’s so great about Macs and Apple anyway?
My wife is a Mac user. She has her Macbook Pro (recently traded up from a Powerbook), her iPhone, and her iPod (now a portable hard drive, since the iPhone is now her music player). I love Ubuntu and my Eee PC on which I’ve loaded it. I know, though, that no matter how much I like Ubuntu, my wife is having a better computing experience. It doesn’t have to do with software quality or availability, pretty looks, or hardware peripherals support.

In one of his recent MacWorld Expo keynotes, Steve Jobs talked about recognizing the importance of tightly integrating software and hardware. I don’t like how he’s locked people into his hardware with his software (right now Apple has already filed suit against Psystar, which recently began selling Mac OS X-preinstalled non-Apple computers), but he is right about how important that tight integration is.

What Apple offers you, and you realize this the moment you walk into an Apple store, is a total experience. You want a computer? They’ll sell you computers that are designed to work with the software on them. You want a portable music player? They’ll sell you one that’s designed to work with the music software on the computer they just sold you. You want a TV accessory for watching YouTube videos and renting movies and TV shows? They’ll sell you that, too. The software programs all talk to each other, and the software talks to the hardware, and the hardware is all meant to complement well the other hardware.

Yes, I have my criticisms of Apple and Mac OS X, just as many Ubuntu fans do. I don’t find Mac OS X intuitive at all. I don’t like DRM in the iTunes music store. I don’t like how they actively fight against people trying to use non-iTunes software to sync iPods. I don’t like how their end user license agreement makes you use only Apple computers with Mac OS X. Nevertheless, they’re doing something way beyond making good or beautiful software.

The Canonical store
This is what I would love to see, Mark Shuttleworth, and maybe it might take more than even your hundreds of millions to get set up, but I’m dreaming here. It’s okay to dream, I hope. For Ubuntu to surpass Apple, there should be a Canonical store—a brick and mortar store. You can start with a couple of them—maybe one in London, one in New York—and expand from there.

A Canonical store would be much like an Apple store. There would be computers on display that ran Ubuntu and were guaranteed to work with Ubuntu in every way (no non-working resume-from-suspend, or no it-worked-in-a-previous-version-but-after-you-upgrade-there-might-be-a-sound-problem). There would be portable media players that were designed to work well with Rhythmbox and vice versa. These would also be on display. There would be Canonical cinema displays that played nice with Xorg, so all you would have to do is plug it in, click on an icon on the Gnome panel to auto-detect displays and have an extended desktop with proper screen resolutions on both your Ubuntu laptop and the Canonical cinema display. You would be able to buy Ogg and MP3 songs from major and independent music labels through a Rhythmbox plugin (the Magnatune and Jamendo plugins they have now are a good start). More importantly, all the printers and other peripherals sold at the Ubuntu store would be guaranteed to work with Ubuntu.

Ubuntu’s fruit would be free
How, some of you Ubuntu users are wondering, would this be any different from the Apple store? It sounds like an exact clone of Apple. We don’t want to be Apple. We want to be Ubuntu. We want to be different. We are not Windows. We are not Mac OS X. We are a Linux distribution. If people want a Mac, they should get a Mac. Leave them to their iPods and Apple TVs. This would be different, though, my dream Canonical store. It would be different in the only important way that Linux is different from OS X and Windows—the software would be open source.

It’s about software freedom, and that’s what the Canonical store would provide you with. Yes, there would be a limited number of default and recommended hardware combinations available at the Canonical store, but if Psystar (provided it still exists after the Apple lawsuit) wanted to sell Ubuntu preinstalled computers, instead of suing Psystar, Canonical would partner with Psystar. People could buy hardware from the Canonical store if they wanted their hardware to be guaranteed to work well with Ubuntu, but nothing would stop geeks from buying Linux-friendly hardware from NewEgg or TigerDirect (they could scour the out-of-date entries in Ubuntu Wiki entry on hardware support while the general public would walk into a Canonical store and not worry about doing all the research). Rhythmbox would be designed to work well with whatever portable media player Canonical sold, but the specs would be open so that anyone could use a regular MSC transfer on other portable media players.

If Ubuntu sets that up, I think they might actually have a chance of beating Apple, but it also means getting into the hardware business (or setting up a very close partnership with a hardware vendor).

What direction will Canonical go?
Of course, one could argue that Canonical could go the way of Microsoft and stay a software company (only with free software instead of proprietary software), but Windows can work that way because vendors support it instead of Windows supporting itself. You end up having to install a lot of drivers and software after a Windows installation just to get basic functionality. An Apple approach would be much more in line with a Ubuntu user experience, especially since the Linux kernel provides the drivers for hardware and package management provides all the software for the end user.

The Microsoft approach is “We make the operating system and very little else. All you hardware and software companies better just make sure your stuff works with our operating system.”

The Apple approach is “We make the operating system and the computers and the software. We’ll bundle it all together and make sure it works well together. It’d be awesome if you third-party people made your stuff work with our stuff, too.”

What should Canonical’s approach be? In my dream world (and I hope Mark Shuttleworth agrees with this), it would be “We make the operating system and highly recommend these computer configurations in order to work well with our software and will bundle everything together, but we have opened up the source code and specs for everything, so if you want to go a way other than our way, go for it. We fully support you in branching off and using something else.”

That might take care of Bug #1, or at least help Canonical surpass Apple.