Early this month, Mark Pilgrim made waves when he went shopping for a new Mac, but decided not to buy one, and, in When the bough breaks, wrote at length about switching to Ubuntu. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and now John Gruber’s written And Oranges, a fine excursus on Mark’s piece. I’m pondering the switch away myself, too, and maybe sharing my thoughts will be helpful. [Update: Lots of feedback on the state of the Ubuntu art.] [Update: More from Mark. I feel sick, physically nauseated, that Apple has hidden my email—the record of my life—away in a proprietary undocumented format. I’ve had this happen once before (the culprit was Eudora); fool me twice, shame on me. Hear a funny sound? That’s a camel’s back, breaking.]

Note: The links to pieces of software in this fragment are not to their pages, but to my experience with them on the Mac.

The Conversation Thus Far · First of all, I should say that I share every one of Mark’s concerns. In particular, it’s bothered me for years that the Apple apps aren’t Open Source; there are all these irritating little misfeatures and shortcomings that I’d be willing and maybe able to fix, and there are lots more like me. Since the apps are joined at the hip to OS X, there’d be no real downside to Apple.

The real problem, it seems to me (and I think this bothers Mark more than he says), is Apple’s paranoid communication culture: it is forbidden to say anything except what it’s compulsory to say. Apple’s exterior is polished, shiny; and entirely opaque. Personally, I think their success has been about shipping good products, but I think they believe it’s a consequence of the tightness of the lip. I’d rather do business with a company I can talk to.

John Gruber’s essay is very hard to disagree with, but I’d place more weight than either he or Mark did on the increasing excellence of Ubuntu. If you haven’t tried a recent Ubuntu, you really should; the level of polish, and amount of stuff that “Just Works”, is really remarkable. Ubuntu won’t always be the polish-and-quality leader among Linux distros, of course; but for now, it’s set a very high standard.

Non-Problems · I already use lots of OSS: Adium for chat, Camino (based on Firefox) for browsing, Emacs for editing, and NetBeans for Java. So there’d be zero cost in those spaces to switch to Ubuntu.

Quite a bit of the Apple software I use, I could move off with little trouble. Mail.app is bothering me more and more every day with its lousy performance and pitiful search capabilities, so I think I’d be OK with Thunderbird. How hard can ripping CDs and playing MP3s be? I don’t think I’d miss iTunes, and I love music too much to get locked into the iTMS handcuffs.

I use iCal but I hate it; it’s lost my calendar data, which is intolerable. I’m only still there because I haven’t had the time to invest in finding an alternative.

Painful But Bearable · I know I’d miss Preview, it’s the unsung Apple software hero. The thought of having to go back to using Acrobat makes me want to puke. iMovie, that’s another problem. [Update: Evince is said to be an excellent Preview replacement.] If I want to keep shooting HD video, and I do, maybe a dedicated Mac Mini video-editing station is the thing, because doing it on a laptop is a dumb idea anyhow.

On the non-Apple front, PhotoShop Elements meets my needs pretty well, but I’m pretty sure I could learn to live with, if not love, the Gimp. [Update: Mark Pilgrim says Krita is good too.]

Finally, there’d be a certain amount of visual pain, because a lot of Linux applications think things like anti-aliasing, drop shadows, and transparency are optional extras, not things that are just expected to be there.

The Hard Issues · There are three things the Macs do that I don’t think I could live without:

  • Quick suspend/resume; the feature that originally drove me to switch, back in 2002. When I open my laptop and put my hands on the keyboard I want to be able to start typing right then. [Update: Several Ubuntuns write to tell me that the delay is down into the 15-20 second range (but can be screwed up by the wrong hardware).]

  • WiFi that Just Works. It so often happens; I’m in a meeting, I open my laptop and I’m on the air, while the Windows victims are saying “Are you sure there’s WiFi in here? What are the hex digits?” and the Linux types are reconfiguring their kernels. [Update: Ubuntuns report that this is getting there, but the answers contain disturbing mentions of “this great utility” and “a little tinkering”.]

  • Outboard projector. I have a public-facing job. When I plug my computer into a projector, I want it to project, without me having to think about it. I’ve never seen a Linux or Solaris box do this reliably. [Update: Feedback confirms this is still a real issue in Linux-land.]

Will I Switch? · Yes. For Mark’s reasons, and because I’m pretty darn sure that either Ubuntu or some other distro will eventually get the key things right.

Alternatively, Apple could open-source a few of their apps so we could all fix the pain points, and they could start having an actual conversation with the world. Nothing less is acceptable.

As John Gruber points out, neither Mark nor I are exactly typical. But you know what? I think that if the GNU/Linux/Solaris community can sustain its current level of energy and progress, and if Apple maintains its dysfunctional communications culture, there are going to be better choices just not for me, but for a lot of other people too.

author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
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June 15, 2006
· Technology (85 fragments)
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