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Switching

You might have gathered from some of my more recent posts that I've switched platform. My main machine is now a Dell laptop, running Ubuntu 8.10.

I've been using Macs since 1986, and have owned one more or less continuously since 1989. Machines that have been through the mill of my day-to-day keyboard bashing include the Mac Plus, LC 475, PowerBook Duo, iBook and MacBook Pro. I've earned a living writing about Macs and attended more Macworld Expos than I can count.

But unless Apple has a change of direction and creates some very different machines, I think that I've probably bought my last one.

The reasons behind moving from Mac OS X to Linux are varied. The first reason was simple: price. There's no doubt that with its most-recent set of upgrades Apple has produced some seriously powerful machines. Unfortunately, it has also upped the price. I simply wasn't prepared to spend £200 more than my last MacBook Pro cost me.

I could, of course, have gone for the MacBook. For the kinds of things I do it's more than powerful enough. But it also has a 13in screen and after years of having 15in on my main machine, that's simply not big enough.

Apple doesn't produce a less-powerful 15in machine, but plenty of other vendors do. It's understandable from a supply-line and product simplicity perspective for Apple to keep its product lines as tight as possible. But at the end of the day it also means that it doesn't make a machine which matches my needs.

(This, incidentally, is one of the often-forgotten twists to the whole “ are Macs value for money?” question. Compared to an identical-specced PC, they sometimes are. But often, users don't need the features or power one of the Macs delivers. It's not “value for money” to pay for a machine with features you don't need, unless they're free or very cheap. In my case, for example, paying £1400 simply so I could have a 15in screen, when I don't need a 1GHz system bus or two graphics cards can't be considered good “ value for money”.)

There was, though, another reason for switching, one which Mark Pilgrim highlighted when he moved from Mac to Linux. Apple is a highly-closed company, one which doesn't document its file formats and tends to lock customers in in ways which are occasionally subtle, and occasionally less-so.

You can see this most clearly in the iPhone. Like the Mac, the iPhone is a lovely piece of design. But it's also a highly-closed environment. Developers who don't want to play ball with Apple don't get to officially distribute their applications, instead having to rely on others to hack open the phone's operating system. If you want to get your application on the majority of iPhones, you have to play by Apple's rules – and those rules are, it seems, pretty arbitrary.

Now I know all the arguments for this. But they're fundamentally the same arguments which IBM used to use in the days when it wanted you to only run IBM software on your IBM mainframe. Yes, being part of a closed, tightly-controlled computing ecosystem buys you security. But it also takes away your ability to truly make your personal computing environment “personal”.

(And here's a prediction for you: The Mac development ecosystem will increasingly come to resemble that of the iPhone, and for much the same reasons. Code signing will ultimately move from “optional” to “no way you're running without it”. Apple will move into application distribution, and with s similar sort of rule-set as it has for the iPhone. All the same rationales which work for the iPhone also work for the Mac. I don't think this will happen in the next five years, but my guess is that it will happen, sooner or later. UPDATE: If you've come here from Giles' post, which highlights this prediction, you might be interested in reading more about why I think a Mac App Store is going to happen. )

After all, this is a company which uses the DMCA to prevent people reverse engineering the iPod's database files, something which is essential if the iPod is to be opened up to people who don't use Windows or Mac. One which, without warning, implements HDCP “anti-copying” technology, in a way which makes even non-HD content unplayable on something which isn't “approved” hardware.

Thankfully, there is another way – one which doesn't rely on a single corporation to take care of all your computing needs. So the machine I bought wasn't a MacBook, or MacBook Pro, but a shiny new Dell XPS1530, which now happily runs Ubuntu 8.10. It's not as powerful as a MacBook Pro, but it's exactly the right hardware for my needs, with an operating system which isn't owned or dominated by a single monolithic corporation.

How has the experience been so far? I haven't missed the Mac for a single minute. Everything has just worked.

There's still a Windows partition on my machine, but that's really only there for emergencies: WINE runs WoW perfectly, and the frame rates I get make my old MacBook Pro look like an Apple II. I can see the day in the not-too-distant future when I won't need that Windows security blanket, and I can reclaim the 80GB I've left it for something more useful. The Dell came with a 400GB drive, so I'm not exactly desperate for the space yet.

ITunes? Don't need it – Amarok is just so much better. I use OpenOffice for all my documents, which gives me a format which doesn't exist only as long as a single company wants it to – unlike Pages.

Ubuntu has been a dream to set up. Seriously, I think almost anyone can do this – and if you're unlucky enough to hit any problems, a quick Google search will almost certainly yield an answer from the amazing community which surrounds it. With my Dell, I ran into a single small problem with the trackpad, which, thanks to Google and the Ubuntu community, I was able to solve within ten minutes. Certainly, if you're able to set up a Windows machine, you should be able to get Ubuntu up and running.

And there's been some particularly impressive stuff too. My Dell came with a 3G modem built-in, and Ubuntu not only detected the card but worked with it in minutes. I didn't need to do anything with the command line, I didn't have to tweak config files. Just click on a Wizard, tell it which mobile network I was using, and it just worked. The same was true of my printer. The printer is an HP Deskjet that's less than a year old, and while Windows Vista claimed to know nothing about it, Ubuntu recognised it when it was plugged in and worked first time.

Should you be doing the same thing? If you care about open software and open formats, and don't want to be locked into a single hardware or operating system vendor, then the answer would be yes. If all you care about it how easy your computer is to use, and are happy with whatever Apple wants you to have, then no. Ubuntu is as close as an operating system “for the rest of us” as anythi
ng ever made, but it's not for everyone.

And that's a good thing, because monocultures are bad. I want Mac OS X to improve and thrive, just as I want Microsoft to continue to make Windows better. Competition is good, and strong competition between three computing platforms which all take different approaches is a healthy thing.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Barry

    I switched from WinXP to Ubuntu last Easter, and haven’t looked back.
    Haven’t booted into my ‘old’ WinXP (it’s still there!) for over 6mths, now.
    btw: Amarok is ok/good. But, Songbird is much better!!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ianbetteridge Ian Betteridge

    Yeah, I’m going to have a look at Songbird sometime soon – I just like
    the bells and whistles in Amarok!

  • http://ordinalmalaprop.com/engine/ Ordinal Malaprop

    Truth be told I am a multiple “switcher” – or “dilettante” as it is more accurately known – and it will require more annoyance from Apple than has been forthcoming so far to throw me off. I could I think operate happily in Second Life using only an Ubuntu system and, mostly, do; I am one of these peculiar people who _likes_ the GIMP, the appalling sound architecture can be worked around, and I would not miss the ability to actually edit video all that much. Mostly.
    I quite like GNOME and even KDE, which runs on my EEE, but when using either I consistently miss tiny things from OS X; not merely applications but also tiny little rational decisions in the basic OS, and _integration_. And _consistency_. And also all of the applications which are not immediately essential but make life that much more comfortable; Circus Ponies Notebook comes to mind, TaskPaper, LaunchBar. Proper desktop search (Beagle is awful). 1Password. SnapzProX, AudioHijack. Good lord, iWork over OpenOffice, horrible thing though far better on Linux than the Mac.
    Apart from games and occasional hardware issues I can see little reason to prefer XP over Ubuntu or other modern Linuxes, certainly, but it would pain me to move from OS X, and that pain would need to be balanced by the avoidance of greater pain than I am experiencing at the moment.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ianbetteridge Ian Betteridge

    There’s some comparative applications in your list that pop into mind. Gnome-do for LaunchBar, Google Desktop for desktop search for example.
    iWork is a nice bit of software. But I’ve been bitten far too often in the past by Apple-only file formats to use it without getting nervous.
    But it’s really all about personal preference, and what you value. I value using as much open source software and/or documented, freely-available file formats more than I value the extra 10% usability and polished applications that I’d get from running OS X. Plus, of course, the money I saved not buying a MacBook Pro :)

  • http://www.ianfogg.com Ian Fogg

    I agree completely with the hardware argument. Boils down to: Apple only makes a small number of hardware designs.
    Software lock-in I don’t agree with. I’ve just switched from Windows to Mac OS X. I find that most of my applications run fine on the Mac and most of them are open source or free (Firefox, Thunderbird, Tweetdeck/Air, Jalbum, Skype, IM, VNC, iTunes, Openoffice). BTW – MS Office on the Mac is a disgrace — even 2008 – it’s really slow and unstable.
    I have Ubuntu installed too for test purposes. It’s nearly there and is the easiest OS to install, bar none. I dislike the Ubuntu UI — too many menus clutter the top of the screen — and the font rendering is really ugly. But what really holds me back are a number of useful handheld-orientated apps which are Windows/Mac but not linux-friendly eg Evernote, SplashID plus some of the heavy hitting Adobe apps.
    So, Ubuntu is not quite there yet for me to use as a main machine for similar reasons to why Apple hardware doesn’t work for you: choice!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ianbetteridge Ian Betteridge

    Your degree to which open data is important will, of course, vary according to what you do and what you think is valuable. But I suspect as time goes by, the issue of open data will bite more and more people in the behind – mostly in the consumer-level products.
    If you’ve spent years tagging and categorising your photos, the fact that this metadata is locked up in a binary black hole in iPhoto will matter to you. The same is true of ratings, playlists, and comments in iTunes.
    It places a small but effective barrier in the way of you switching to another platform – and with customers adding more and more metadata to documents in this way, that barrier will only get higher. I’ll be very interested to see if iLife 09 has made any improvements in this area.
    I don’t think Apple is going out of its way to do this, although I don’t think, either, that it’s going to expend much effort going in the other direction. But we’ll see.

  • http://bowblog.com Steve Bowbrick

    Fascinating. Do you think, when Linux really clicks and the big switch starts, that it might actually be Apple and not Wintel that suffers worst?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ianbetteridge Ian Betteridge

    That’s a very tough question to answer, Steve :)
    First, I don’t think there will be a “big switch” as such. There isn’t likely to be any “year of desktop linux”, because shifts in computing rarely happen that quickly. Look at the Mac, for example. Its market share is probably no more than 7-8% worldwide (including mail order and retail), which means it’s taken about ten years to gain perhaps four percentage points. And, by any reasonable measure, that’s been a massive success for Apple, and cost it a great deal in time, energy and resources.
    Secondly, most people care less about the portability and ownership of their data than I do. It’s taken me 20-odd years of computer usage to get to the point where I care enough about it to duck out of single-vendor eco-systems. For most people, buying iPhoto for the rest of time (because they’re locked into it) is a price worth paying to more easily play around with their photos.
    And the only way that will change is if Apple gets carried away with its power (and the recent changes its made to iPhoto 09, such as decoupling it from MobileMe, suggest that’s unlikely).
    That means switchers like me are always going to be a rare species. But – and this is just a hunch – I suspect that there will be proportionally more switchers from Mac than Windows, for the simple reason that if you can use one version of Unix, getting your head around another one isn’t hard. That means, for a technically-adept Mac user, it’s probably easier conceptually to get to grips with Linux than it would be for a seasoned Windows user.
    But that’s really all guess-work. And my guess is that people who jump from Mac to Linux will add up to the kind of number that Apple’s marketeers would consider a rounding error.

  • Terry

    I could live on Ubuntu despite being a Mac user since 1984. But I’m also an experienced IT Unix geek. Good luck with that crap Dell hardware and even worse technical support. Seriously. I guess you didn’t know that Pages can export to other formats. Or that Open Office is also on the Mac as are many of the other apps you talk about. Your idea that Apple will institute an Apple App store is ludicrous as it would kill the company. 99% of mac users have no idea they are using Unix so going to Ubuntu and having to figure out how to install a wireless card with no drivers won’t be easy. Most people don’t want to have to fuss with their OS and that includes me since I do IT work all day. I don’t want to have to mess around with command lines at home. It’s not at all difficult to get photos out of iPhoto or music out of iTunes btw.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/ianbetteridge/ Ian Betteridge

    Yes, I know you can export documents from Pages – but that means remembering to export a copy of everything you ever work on, and exporting it again if you amend it. Because the alternative is keeping a Mac around for the rest of time just in case you want to access those Pages documents.
    And, of course, you’re relying on Apple to carry on supporting opening old document formats down the line (or hoping that a third party comes to your rescue). Good luck opening a ClarisWorks 3.0 document in Pages.
    I think you may have missed part of the point, though. Of course you can export any image you like from iPhoto, or any song you like from iTunes. But that comes at a price: pretty much all the metadata you added is gone. Now when you have a few hundred songs and don’t bother rating them, adding covers, and so on that won’t matter. But I have about (at last count) 147GB of music alone. While I’m not a big tagger and rater, there are people who invest a lot of time in metadata – and, at the moment, that metadata effectively belongs to Apple, because you can’t take it with you if you decide to move from Apple products.
    Contrast that with, say, Amarok, which stores its metadata in a MySQL database. You can export it, from there, to pretty much anywhere – and not only is the format commonly used, it’s fully documented. And if you can’t personally do it, there’s almost certainly someone in the Linux community who’s either done it already and created a script, or who’ll tell you how to do it. You own that data in a way that just isn’t true on the Mac.
    One final point. When I installed Ubuntu on the Dell, everything Just Worked. Wireless, web cam, Bluetooth, card reader, DVD, etc etc. Even the built-in 3G modem just worked, automatically setting itself up to work with my SIM. The one thing that didn’t work out of the box is the fingerprint login – something that I didn’t even know the machine had when I ordered it. And if I wanted it to work, all I’d need to do is install a package from Add/Remove Apps – probably the work of a minute.

  • http://www.zeusboxstudio.com ncus

    Good luck on your Dell and Ubuntu 8.10. Just curious, how long have you used Ubuntu? Is it over a month?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ianbetteridge Ian Betteridge

    Thanks ncus. I’ve used Ubuntu off and on for over a year, and other distros before that – although that’s always been on a “use occasionally” basis. A couple of years ago I tried using it more regularly, but at that point, it felt much less ready for prime time than it does now – driver support in particular reflected Terry’s experiences (above) more than is true now.
    I’ve actually had the XPS since 12th November, and installed 8.10 on it immediately – so it’s been two months as my main machine. The only time I boot into either Mac or Windows is for one Windows app which doesn’t run under Wine (it’s a pretty obscure one) or to sync my iPhone to iTunes (which, as most everything syncs over the air, isn’t often).
    I’ve still got a Windows partition on the Dell (80GB – it’s a 400GB drive, so I’ve got plenty of room), but I can see a day in the not-too-distant future when I’ll be getting rid of Windows entirely.

  • http://www.ernestdeleon.com Ernest

    I’m glad to see that another person has switched to Ubuntu. Ironically, I just bought my first Mac (a new aluminum MacBook) in October when it released. I am a systems engineer by trade, so I work with operating systems all day long. I have been using Linux at home exclusively for years, and I switched to Ubuntu as my main distro back in 2004 when it launched. I do not use windows nor any Microsoft product at home (minus my 360.) I am really liking my MacBook and I use it almost exclusively now, but I understand exactly why you switched. It was a hard decision to dump the money on this MacBook, but I really liked the way OSX worked. I am really thinking about getting the new 17″ MacBook pro when it hits the stores at the end of the month, but yet again, the price is a semi-deterrent. Rather, the value proposition is the problem as you stated in your post. Ubuntu will do everything I ever need it to do since I game on console only, and I don’t really need a Mac at all. I guess I just like the look and feel of this new aluminum line. The engineering is solid. I have a nice youtube video on my blog at http://www.ernestdeleon.com that has various Apple engineers and developers talking about the engineering behind the new aluminum MacBook line. It is quite impressive. I think this is the real reason that I decided to get my first Mac. I was so impressed by the engineering and ‘love’ that went into the design. The new 17″ MacBook pro has a stated battery life of 8 hours per charge, despite the fact that it is not user replaceable. It is ironic that they give the best battery life to the largest and heaviest notebook they sell. I would rather have seen that in the 15″ or 13″ models. In my blog I also touch on a lot of open source and tech related topics, and I feel exactly like you do about open formats. You should never feel afraid to move to a new platform because of vendor lock-in. At some point Apple and Microsoft will have to learn this, or businesses will start to rebel. Thanks for the great post, and I look forward to new ones.

  • http://standblog.org/blog/en Tristan

    Hey Ian, it’s time to update your http://technovia.typepad.com/about.html page, as it’s till mentioning that your prime machine is a Mac!
    –Tristan (who is now on a Mac after switching from Windows to Ubuntu to Mac until I get back to Linux for the exact reasons you mention).

  • http://profile.typekey.com/ianbetteridge/ Ian Betteridge

    Ha! Thanks Tristan – I’ll do that this evening :)

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p010536cdf374970b thibauld.com

    I’m glad to see that there are Mac users moving to Ubuntu. I really think Ubuntu Linux is a (note that I did not say “the”) system of the future. Yet it misses an important brick in my opinion which is: an easy to use app store for newcomers to find their way through searching and installing new applications. With this idea in mind, we went on coding with a friend of mine and released allmyapps ( http://www.allmyapps.com ) last week. We really want to position it as an app store for ubuntu linux as, today, we think that what hurts most, is when people finally realize that they cannot do (read “don’t known how to do”) anything with their shiny new laptop / netbook. If the linux desktop is to succeed one day, an app store is a must have! As you’re a mac user who switched to Ubuntu, I would really appreciate any feedback for your side on allmyapps!
    Thanks!

  • Anona

    First, thanks for finally outing yourself. You’ve been a shrill opponent of most things Apple recently.
    Second, good luck with a mindset that feels comfortable with the notion of trailing by about 18-24 months Apple’s innovation curve in hardware, software and services.
    Third, enjoy your time with an ecosystem that’ll likely never enjoy the broad support of the mainstream marketplace in hardware, software and services.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ianbetteridge Ian Betteridge

    “Anona”, congratulations on being the first person here to fall into
    the category of “cliched platform fanatic”. You obviously didn’t
    bother to read to the end of what I wrote, so I’ll repeat the last
    paragraph here, just for you:
    “And that’s a good thing, because monocultures are bad. I want Mac OS
    X to improve and thrive, just as I want Microsoft to continue to make
    Windows better. Competition is good, and strong competition between
    three computing platforms which all take different approaches is a
    healthy thing.”
    My choice does not have to be your choice, and what works for me
    doesn’t have to be what works for you. By seeing the world in black
    and white, in terms of “pro-Apple or anti-Apple”, all you’re doing is
    making yourself look silly. The world is more complex than that.
    If you’d have bothered to read what I wrote, you might have picked up
    on something: being on the leading edge of innovation isn’t as
    important to me as having open formats, and a platform that gives me
    more choices than Apple’s does. Even if Apple was at the bleeding edge
    of brilliant innovation, that wouldn’t matter to me as much as
    avoiding closed and proprietary solutions which limit my choices in
    the long run.
    And to your final point: I hate to break it to you, but the
    “mainstream marketplace” is all about Windows. And, again, if you’d
    have bothered to read what I wrote you’d know that having “the
    mainstream solution” isn’t important to me, if that “mainstream
    solution” means being locked in to a single vendor.
    I hope you enjoy your Mac – it’s a fine product, produced by a great
    company and a hugely-talented group of people. Now if you’d like to
    stop sneering at the idea that other people might just care about
    different things to you and have different priorities, we can all get
    along just fine.

  • Al

    Interesting article, however, it seems that your entire argument for Ubuntu is based on the premise that you *must* upgrade! If you don’t need the extra power, and you were/are happy with your current Mac, why not just stick with what you have and run opensource software on the Mac? I mean, it’s not the OS that causes lock-in, it’s the apps right? So why not just avoid using Apple apps?!
    Also maybe I’m missing something, but why even buy the Dell? Why not just install Ubuntu on your MacBook Pro??

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ianbetteridge Ian Betteridge

    Hi Al – the MBP was beginning to show its age, performance-wise. Games, for example (and particularly WoW!) were really sluggish.
    I thought about converting the MBP to Linux, but it takes a lot of tweaking to get everything working properly (see https://help.ubuntu.com/community/MacBookPro1-1_1-2/Intrepid).
    While that’s the kind of fun project that I’ll probably do when I get a free weekend (or two), I wanted something that gave me better performance and was generally more “Ubuntu-ready”.

  • David

    Ian, you make good points about the “lock-in” of metadata by iPhoto, iTunes, etc. I’m a Mac user with extensive iPhoto and iTunes libraries and I worry about the long-term prospects for all this metadata that I so carefully create.
    On the upside, one of the great things about the iPhoto/iTunes architecture is that when Apple revs the software, all my data AND metadata get updated quickly and automatically.
    Contrast that to the typical scenario of random Word Docs, Excel spreadsheets, Photoshop files, etc. all scattered about in various sub-folders in your Documents directory. Just because you install the latest version of Word/Excel/Photoshop doesn’t mean those files get updated. Eventually they can age out so badly that you suffer the “ClarisWorks 3.0″ syndrome you alluded to. For example, I’m noticing that Pages ’09 cannot open some of my 10-year old Word docs (though it opens more recent ones just fine).
    So, one strategy is to drink the Koolaid, keep all your data and metadata inside Apples “containers”, and rely on them to keep revving everything for you. If, in the future, you want to switch platforms or apps, look for AppleScripts, XML export or other 3rd-party tools to liberate your data and metadata. The likelihood of said tools being available is heightened by the sheer popularity of iTunes.
    A benefit of running with the herd is that lots of people and companies accessorize. Look at the iPod/iPhone ecosystem! Ditto for iTunes add-ons.
    I do envy how open your Amarok metadata MySQL database is. Still, I wonder this: if you someday switch to Windows 8 or Mac OS 11 or a different flavor of Linux, will you actually be able to get your Amarok metadata converted over to the new system?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ianbetteridge Ian Betteridge

    Good points, David. The Pages 09/Word problem you describe is exactly what I’m referring to. You can bet that Microsoft Word will open those files – but does that mean you have to be locked into Word for the rest of time? Microsoft would certainly like it! :)
    The “what happens if I switch again?” question is a good one. One of the benefits of open source software is that it tends to be cross-platform – for example, Amarok has been built on Windows and (in an early form) on the Mac too.
    More importantly, the specfication for how the data is stored is open, which means – in theory at least – getting the data out in a form which can be imported into something else is relatively easy. Of course, that depends on the “something else” being able to import metadata… but that’s something that I would hope even closed source software would want to support. After all, if you want people to switch to your platform, you want them to be able to bring their data with them.
    It’s important to note, though, that not all open source software correctly documents formats. XCF, the native format for Gimp, is only partially properly documented (for reasons which are too complex to go into) – the developers regard the source code as the full reference to the format, which isn’t overly helpful. They have, however, decided to move to a new, fully-documented format based on ODF in the future.
    And of course, you’re right to say that in the future, the tools will *probably* be available to switch. Cunning users tend to find ways to reverse engineer these things, although sometimes it can be horribly hit-or-miss (sometime I’ll write up the tale of trying to merge two iTunes libraries with third party tools…)
    But, for me, that just raises the question: Why should I have to jump through hoops and pray that some third party manages to reverse engineer something, when Apple could just do the right thing in the first place and use open formats, or document what they do?
    Especially when there are platforms around which don’t follow that path.
    As I said, though, it’s up to each individual to weigh up what’s right for them. There’s no single “true path”, and it’s the competition between different software platforms, and different approaches, which keeps everyone honest.

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  • http://jearle.eu/ Jared Earle

    Are we due a MacBook-related follow-up to this? ;)

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    I've been kind-of pondering it. Or rather, pondering how to phrase it. :)

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