Apple’s Challenge

If I was Apple I wouldn’t be worried at all about Windows, I would be worried about the next generation of Linux desktop software. The main reason I’m considering a G5 for my next desktop purchase is that I want a powerful machine that Just Works when I plug stuff in and can still run all the open source tools like Subversion, rysync, PHP, MySQL, etc etc that I rely on. It’s also interesting that all the software I regard these days as truly essential isn’t desktop software, it’s server software. I can survive switching text editors or graphics programs or even operating systems, but if I had to use ASP and SQL Server instead of Perl/PHP/Python and MySQL I’m not sure what I would do. I can function without these things on my desktop, but having to access them remotely (if it’s pretty transparent) prohibits some pretty cool stuff and diminishes my productivity.

Windows and OS X are tools I use to get things done. Linux desktop software (X, KDE, Gnome, etc) is a hobby. If I could focus on getting work done instead of getting my wireless card to work I could consider as a serious and cheaper alternative to a OS X desktop. (No matter what I want one of those new Cinema displays though.)

To preemptively clarify, my comments do not at all apply to Linux in the server space, where it by far the most mature and capable platform out there and I would hardly consider anything else.

12 replies on “Apple’s Challenge”

I’m thinking of buying a powerbook G4. I have never owned a mac before, but it seems like the OS X is pretty sweet. I know for a fact that macs are superior in graphics. That is a main reason why I might be going for that. How you liking your mac so far? I’m assuming ur loving it !

Actually Linux is nothing Apple should be worried about.
A little story.
I used Macs all my life, but when I tried to update OS 9.1 to 9.2.2 on my old PowerMac 8600 it refused it, saying that it would run on G3s only. There was no technical reason for that restriction; Apple just wanted me to buy a new computer. Well that got me really angry and I bought a PC instead. I tried various Linux distributions and finally found Gentoo. However after using Linux for over a year I wasn’t satisfied. I switched Window Managers regularly (as soon as I found a new one) and none worked for me. It was the lack of Human Interface Guidelines. Applications just didn’t fit each other. It was a patchwork of different interfaces and I couldn’t work as good as I could it with a Mac. In the end I bought a Mac again.
Linux users, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s a general bad thing that there aren’t any Interface Guidelines, but I personally need applications that work they way I expect them to work – and I suppose most people do. That’s why Linux will probably never be a threat for Apple on the desktop.

I love my Windows setup that I do all my work-stuff in, and I have a Fedora 2 install that I play around in too as a hobby.

Apple has nothing to worry about in the open-source/Linux world until they can make something that works out of the box for my mother. Now as big of a fan as I am of Linux and the open-source community, it’s not going anywhere soon. There’s no documentation on how to get your wireless card to work (or my sound card) so you spend more time reading blogs on how to get something to work on your machine than you do working on your machine. By the time you realize that you have to install about 12 seperate libraries, you scream out a 4-letter expletive and reboot into Windows.

René, what’s neat is the desktops like Suse and Ximian (Mandrake, etc) are really creating seamless experiences. I love Gentoo and it has its place, but the enviroment doesn’t compare.

Well they may have the same window “skinning”. But: run Firefox and run GIMP. Two major applications that have two completely different interface designs. That’s what I mean.

“I know for a fact that macs are superior in graphics.” — No, sorry. This is nothing but a legacy attitude from the early 90’s that no longer holds true. PCs and Macs are on equal footing, most packages are surprisingly consistent cross-platform. Don’t believe the hype.

I just purchased an older iBook making my first switch to the Mac platform because I know that when I get it, things will “Just Work”. I have grown up on PC’s and have built up the midset that they are cheaper, better, faster, more upgradable, etc. Now I realize that that is not true. OS X is a wonderful operating system where things work well and I don’t have to worry about stupid failures all the time.

Most people think that Mac’s lack the variety of software that you can find for Windows, and though that may be true to an extent, the software that is there works well and everyhing you really need is there.

Rene, this is not true.

Both KDE and Gnome have their own User Interface Guidelines (http://developer.kde.org/documentation/design/ui/ and http://developer.gnome.org/projects/gup/hig/ respectively).

The problem is actually promoting this guidelines so that developers use them. I think I’m right in saying that any app needs to conform to these guidelines before it can actually be bundled with either of these desktop interfaces. Gnome especially are very proud of their interface guidelines.

It is interesting how easy it is to set up an OSX box out of the box to do totally server things. Case in point: my mother in law. She wanted to do a local history project. “I thought I’d do some of the stuff on a spreadsheet,” she said.
“Don’t be mad,” I said. “You want a database.”
“Ooh, could you?” she said. But of course – no budget.
So I knuckled down: I’d tried (and failed) to dabble with MySQL before, but now I had a reason. (MIL’s are very good for babysitting duties, in case you’re wondering.) Plus some PHP. And of course Apache to serve up the pages.

Of course I’d have to teach myself PHP and MySQL (gotta book – the Visual Quickpro guide?). OK, did that. Sufficiently. (Having done Applescript, which is mildly typed, PHP’s untyped variables are great.) And so I could try it out on my machine, and then get her new P’book to serve up the pages. Since then I’ve put a pretty good search engine into it as well.

And the *really* neat thing is that when I need to shift it over to a real live web server, rather than just being something she uses on her home machine to research a book, I can dump the databases, copy over the PHP, and we’ll be up and running.

Yes, you could with Windows. But you’d have to install the PHP and Apache and MySQL. Only need to find the latter on OSX.

I read an article a couple of months ago that summed up my feelings about the directions user interfaces are going in in general, but particularly open source. The main point the author made (I can’t find the link anymore unfortunately) is that since commercial software vendors need to sell upgrades they feel the need to add more user interface. Look at recent versions of Windows, Office and MacOS X. Each of these products ships a new version every 1-3 years which customers are expected to pay $100-$300 for, and each one has contained significant user interface changes – usually making the interface more complex.

I can accept that Microsoft’s habit of adding features till their software burts at the seams is an ongoing strategy that will either keep them alive or kill them, but for Apple this seems new. They’ve completely thrown their user-interface guidelines out the window and left their users with fairly bizare software.

For the past couple of years I’ve only been peripherally involved with GNOME, but in that time the GNOME HIG has become a mature document that is actually followed. Firstly by every application shipped as part of the GNOME Desktop release (imagine that – your file manager, web browser, email client, etc all looking and behaving consistently) and secondly its simplicity and consistency has meant that most of the other applications written for the GNOME platform are following the same rules. The toolkit authors are making it easier and easier to write applications that behave in a compliant way without much effort at all. The whole process has raised the profile of user interface for open source programmers significantly – a couple of my friends have moved from engineering to interaction design as they’ve realised thats where their passion lies, and the rest of us have an interest in and a respect for the work they do. We love it when our stuff looks pretty.

Meanwhile Apple and Microsoft keep trying to sell the next upgrade with more pixels.

There seem to be two main groups of Mac users: Professionials who rely on a particular piece or suite of software (graphics people who can’t live without Photoshop, Illustrator, et al), and low-impact users who are in love with the Mac interface and would freak out if they saw a command line. I think Linux has a way to go before satisfying either camp. As far as the professional camp, Adobe, for instance, has proclaimed recently and with no hint of ambiguity that they will no time soon be porting their apps to Linux. They feel there’s no money to be made there. Other professionals, like those who use ProTools for making music, are in similar straits. (Yes, Crossover Office is a good project, but even their most stable Adobe offering — Photoshop7 — is not perfect. Illustrator isn’t even supported at all yet. And, yes The Gimp is good, but it ain’t Photoshop.) As for the low-impact camp, the fact is that even with the tremendous strides being made with UIs and ease-of-use in Linux, installing software on a Linux system is no mean feat. I’m a pretty big nerd, and installing LilyPond onto my Mandrake box was enough to bring a tear to my eye. (A tear of frustration, not happiness.)

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