Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, al3x.net has served as his online home.

If I Didn't Use a Mac

I’ve been evangelizing Macs to friends, family, and basically anyone who will listen for over a decade now. Some days, though, I just don’t like Apple all that much. Those days have come a bit more frequently of late, brought on largely by Apple’s mishandling of the iPhone and disappointing showings in hardware and operating system revisions.

The release of the iTunes Wi-fi Store on the iPhone coupled with the revocation of third-party software on the device underscored for me that Apple’s values are changing. I understand not wanting to support potentially damaging unlocking procedures, but waging war on a thriving software development community that exists in spite of Apple’s total lack assistance is mind-boggling. Without third-party applications, the iPhone is little more than an iterative step towards a less repugnant mobile experience. With the addition of the Wi-fi Store, the iPhone moves one step closer to to its tacky companions in the mobile space shilling overpriced, crippled content. In short, the iPhone is lucky it’s pretty, because it seems to be getting dumber every day.

Apple’s advances in hardware are barely worth commenting on from where I’m sitting. Two years ago, I was excited to be able to tell prospective Mac buyers that they had affordable, market-beating options like the Mac mini or iBook. Today, those options seem overpriced and underpowered, though there still aren’t clear competitors I could recommend. Of course, most of Apple’s hardware line is irrelevant to me, and the one product that isn’t - the MacBook Pro - has evolved only incrementally since its 2001 inception as the titanium PowerBook G4.

Most of what’s coming in Leopard is either unexciting or outright unappealing. The GUI, usually Apple’s mainstay aesthetic defense against competition, has gone gaudy; screenshots remind me of latter-day OS 9. Grumbles from the Mac development community about the overall quality of Leopard builds this close to the release window are troubling. From a development perspective, there’s still no assurance of sane package management or first-class support for dynamic languages anywhere on the horizon.

All told, I feel a bit like Mark Pilgrim and Tim Bray circa last summer. There’s nothing so egregiously wrong with my day-to-day Mac experience, but there’s nothing particularly right either.

Both Tim and Mark compiled run-downs of the open-source equivalents of their Mac tools, and as an exercise, I’m doing the same here. Needless to say, Ubuntu would be my OS of choice.

Web

Firefox. I already can’t develop for the web without Firefox and Firebug, and I can’t reliably view a fair portion of the web in Safari 2, 3, or WebKit nightly builds. Safari isn’t functional for me without plugins like Inquisitor, and those plugins are likely going away in Leopard.

Giving up 1Passwd would break my heart. I adore 1Passwd, and I know of nothing of its quality on Linux.

Text

I enjoy TextMate, but honestly, I don’t use a lot of the completion and code generation features, as they tend to lag behind Edge Rails and other tools I work with. My fingers still remember Vim, and it’s got tabs now.

Thankfully, I almost never have to edit office documents, and Google’s Docs suite more than meets my needs. Keynote, Pages, and Numbers are lovely, to be sure, but I can usually load a document faster on Google’s servers, where it’s then a click away from getting where it needs to go (that is, out of my hair).

Chat

Much like Safari, I can’t use iChat without Chax, a bunch of fixes and improvements to Apple’s chat application that are forcibly shimmed in by SIMBL. Adium has never appealed to me; it always seems one more theme or icon set away from looking right, but it never does, and I always go back to iChat. Pidgin ain’t sexy, but neither is chat.

I only ever IRC in dire emergency circumstances. XChat used to be fine for that and probably still is.

Mail

There is only Gmail. I tried to get back into Mail.app for the super happy iPhone Mac native app integration lovefest but it bit me in the ass with instability, terrible search, and no iPhone integration to speak of. There is only Gmail.

Media

Hrm. Erm. Erk. Songbird for music, I guess? I always kinda just liked mpg123, honestly. You can bg that mother or script a lil’ wrapper around it. I kinda like Peel for slurping down podcasts, but if Songbird can’t do that, Ruby + curl can.

There’s VLC for video, which is already a go-to on the Mac. I don’t edit movies. I put my scant few photos on Flickr. I actually like using The GIMP, and am pretty proficient at it for simple web-related image editing tasks. I would miss Skitch and Acorn, but I don’t have occasion to use either app more than once a week.

I have no idea if there’s anything like Yep for the Mac, but I’d sure miss my favorite PDF librarian.

Odds and Ends

Anything would be better than the terminal options on the Mac. I’ve given up Quicksilver for LaunchBar, and even then I only use a fraction of what it can do; any auto-completing launcher would work for me. VMware is still there on Linux, not that I need virtualization half as much as I think I do. Hmm, a good BitTorrent app? There’s gotta be a dozen.

Oh. And. I hate window managers/desktop environments. I hate GNOME, KDE, XFCE, Window Maker, et al. I’ve tolerated the Mac OS window manager, Fluxbox, and Enlightenment. I do, however, like the Vim-for-windows that is wmii and Ion and that ilk. I’ve run them before and they’re just dandy. You’d be amazed what your machine can do when it’s not spending cycles painting windows with pixel-perfect shadows.

Hardware

Software-wise, a switch from the Mac wouldn’t be that painful for me. The hardware is where it all breaks down.

As I said above, Apple’s line is basically irrelevant to me save their top-end portables, so that’s what I’d be trying to match in power and style. Aesthetically, one of those slim silver Panasonic ToughBooks would do, but Ubuntu on one still looks a bit sketch; no reliable external display support is a killer.

I know that Thinkpads and System76 machines are supposed to work great with Ubuntu, but I just wouldn’t want to look at one every day. I’m vain about my technology. They wouldn’t match my glasses. Nuh-uh.

The real issue, though: anything less than total support for your hardware is hugely frustrating. Little incompatibilities are what sent me back to the Mac after my last stint with Linux, an impossibly lithe and sexy but largely unusable Fujitsu. Little things like non-functional volume controls or wi-fi that requires command line incantations are deal-breakers.

If there’s an attractive, powerful machine that isn’t crippled under Ubuntu, do tell. I’m all ears. It’s just that over years of doing literally hundreds of Linux installs for Installfests and the like, I haven’t seen one come out as seamlessly integrated as a Mac yet. Not even close.

So What Now, Mister Doesn’t-Need-the-Mac?

Well, if you need me, I’ll be on my MacBook Pro. Apple may be pulling dick moves left and right, but they’ve still got the best thing going. I’ll give Leopard a spin (whenever it ships) and maybe it’ll wow me - or at least placate me.

I can’t shake the hunch, though, that Leopard is going to be the tipping point back into Linux for me, and maybe more than a few other ex-pat Mac geeks who crossed back over from Linux to Apple’s territory in the Jaguar days. That was 2002, and nothing stays rosy that long in computers.

Living In The Past

Instinct and Intuition