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.