OSX: Out for a Spin

OSX: Out for a Spin


It is mid-November 2001, as I write this, and after reading too many reviews on both OS X and XP, I decided to plonk my change purse on the former. The factors which contributed to that decision, several I will note here.

First off, I realize that some folk will stigmatize Mac users. It should be noted, that I am not a traditional Apple customer. If my elitist tendancies have tended anywhere, it would be towards Linux -- which has also been running on my desktop since '93.

Some people will be predisposed to Microsoft on quite simplistic grounds. I suppose that a degree from a well-known technical University, added to a decade of relevant professional experience, will not convince if there is already resistance to thinking for oneself.

Possibly, a declining competency in the prevalent computer user has contributed to a world where quite a few people assume they already know all of the answers -- popularity, surplanting rationality. In such a world, how easy is it to convince a lemming that it may be headed in the wrong way?

Most who read this, however, should by now realize that the things that people do using Windows, can be done perfectly well using Linux, or using a Mac. Each platform has its strengths as well as frusterations.

The Microsoft Option

The question arises then, why choose OS X, and not XP? That is going to require a bit of background.

Having used the various versions of Windows over the past decade, 3.0, 3.1, 3.11, 95, 98, NT, 2000, I must say that I found that the earlier versions were considerably less than useful due to their remarkable instability. It was when I finally tried NT that I found the platform stable enough to do more than play solitaire. And, I have been using NT in my work on a daily basis since '97. NT is certainly not sexy, but it only occasionally hinders real productivity. I would go on record saying that NT is not bad, although I have grown to hate with a passionate its command interpreter cmd.exe.

Yet, even my experience with NT has not been entirely satisfactory. When I bought NT for at home, it was thought that it would be the place in which I could run the occasional commercial Windows software, should the need arise. It has been disappointing in precisely this regard -- much of the home market stuff just won't run on it.

On a couple occasions when I did pick up blister-wrapped boxed software, which claimed to run on Windows (no version specified on the box). Upon getting it home and unwrapping it, "Windows" did not seem to include Windows NT and I had to deal with disappointed kids and my own aggrevation. In the end, one might conclude that it is entirely an unfortunate coincidence that the various versions bear the name Microsoft Windows.

Sometimes it would read something like, "Windows 95 minimum required". I learned that you don't rely on the fact that the version of Windows NT that you are using is more recent than that minimum version that gets mentioned on the box. NT 4.0 did get released a year after Windows '95, yet you have a coin toss whether something that says 95 minimum, will actually run on such a version of Windows that much newer. I do understand technically why this is, I just find it very annoying.

In one such example, with the Lego Robotics Invention Set v1.5, NT was missing the specific version of "direct-X" that Mindstorms required. When I checked the Microsoft web site, they had a version of direct-X as a patch for NT, but Mindstorms refused to run on it. The CAD$300 I paid for Mindstorms, felt wasted.

It should be noted, however, that while it didn't run on NT, I found plenty of free software for Mindstorms on Linux. Ironically, the free stuff let you do a whole lot more than what the Windows version allowed you to do. In this fact, a simple truth: just because Windows has a large number of companies competing for our business, we should not be so confused as to think it must also offer greater functionality.

The clincher, is the terrible track record Microsoft has for security. With all of the worms, virii, and all around awful quality problems, one does spend way too much energy recovering from, or attempting to prevent dangerous transmitted diseases. Add to that the unsavoury politics.

So now Microsoft claims that XP fixes all of those previous evils. Honestly, by now I am sickening of the whole charade. The blatent greed, the veiled half-truths, and did I mention that they use US green backs to blow their nose? And, I don't think that they pay taxes. My growing cynicism asks whether XP stands for eXtra Pricey? eXtra Proprietary? or as some say, it's just windeX Pee. My intrinsic curiosity with technology becomes overwhelmed with a certain indignation. I think it is time to see what the other options are.

Testing the Apple Waters

A year ago in fall, when the local University was selling off the iBooks that they had used for summer camp, I decided to pick one up. My initial impression was guarded cynicism: what a mind-numbingly simple PC. Windows might have gotten easier over the past decade, but it doesn't hold a candle to this stuff. The fact that my kids and my wife latched onto the iBook quickly, was a plus -- they now refuse to touch anything running Linux or Windows.

This particular device has about 5gig of disk, a CD, a 100/10mbps ethernet, a USB port, a 56k modem, a 300 Mhz G3 PPC CPU, and 320Meg RAM. In case you've never used one of these, you would find that the keyboard has average, or better feel, and the touchpad/mouse button is located on an ample platform which I find reduces repetitive strain problems.

I also found that running Microsoft Word on this 300Mhz PPC processor iBook is quite comparable in user experience with running Word on an 500Mhz Pentium III based IBM Thinkpad 600x, w/192Meg RAM and NT.

Also, by way of comparison, the ThinkPad gets a little over an hour from a fully charged battery. The iBook easily gets over five hours on a similar charge. The battery in the iBook takes almost as long to charge as the ThinkPad.

The iBooks are one of the most reasonably priced lap top computers on the market. Notice that I didn't say the least expensive, but you will certainly find, quite competitively priced.

From cost effectiveness, to keyboard layout, the iBook easily outshines its nearest competitors. Consider the Inspirion -- the manufacturer, Dell, was the very same company that refused to upgrade a two year old Inspirion from Windows '95 to Windows NT 4.0. My iBook was about the same age when I upgraded from OS9 to OSX and the local Apple dealer would have been quite willing, even pleased, to do it for me.

Ready, Set, Go!

As the story goes, I dropped into local Mac dealer and spilled the change purse for OSX. Note, a Mac purist would pronounce this OS 10, although the rest of the world seems to be calling it by its three alphabetics. No panic, most people will understand what you mean, either way.

After putting the media into the CD, you hold down the "C" key while powering on the computer. That is the trickiest part, folks. Getting the media into the CD player with the power turned off -- I'll let you figure out how I managed that one. Once the system is bootstrapped, it asks a few questions right up front, and then you can go for supper. The drive whirs away until done. At the end, it asks some basic questions about your username and password and so forth.

The only thing I managed to screw up was the part about whether I wanted to specify my domain name server which they called "optional". I guess that I am so used to seeing it called named, bind, or DNS, it never even registered, spelled out this way. It was real easy to recover from, and if you have your Internet Service Provider's setup page beside you, you have everything you need to connect; I didn't need any other software to get online -- Apple provided everything that was needed.

Once installed, I noticed that the simple MacOS interface had received a dramatic facelift, and the new Aqua interface as they now called it, was gorgeous, more intuitive and silky smooth. OSX once up and running, is capable of running the previous versions of Mac OS, quite seamlessly. Unlike my Windows NT experiences which refused to run much of the software which was touted as "Windows software" the Mac Classic on OSX actually works as you would expect, when using pre-OSX Mac software. Very cool.

To someone running a dual boot Windows machine, the point about running older software shouldn't get missed. OSX actually uses the CPU's virtual machine instructions to boot up a copy of the previous MacOS. It then runs the old software within the environment that it was compiled for, handing off certain I/O requests to the VM running OSX for certain things. If you are familiar with the VMWare product, that is the concept behind the Mac Classic support here. It runs predictably, "concurrently", and seamlessly. There is no concept of needing to shutdown NT, while 95 is booted -- the old and the new run together quite nicely on the Mac.

For users of AppleWorks 6, a free upgrade to 6.2 was just what it took to observe the benefits of the new operating system. Improved interoperability, file import and export features for people who create web pages, and for conversing with friends who insist on sending Microsoft Word files. AppleWorks 6.2, does a reasonable job of these things, but also sports much improved performance -- this version is a delight to use.

The improved performance of OSX based applications is a direct result of the multi-threading. This technology is used to prioritize those aspects of the software's behaviour which merit the most attention. For example, just because you want the software to take the time between keystrokes to check your spelling, that doesn't mean that you wish to tolerate delays in getting the characters displayed on the screen. Multi-threading allows this all to happen quite smoothly. As impressive as this all was, to me it was still just MacOS. I was yet to get thrilled.

The Skeptic is Slam Dunked

Exploring the new system took quite a bit more time than the install. In my explorations I uncovered such gems as a slick modern shell, replete with tried, trusted and true UNIX utilities. Yup, Apple finally exposes some tummy to reveal friends like, vi, grep, make and cc. Foundational BSD UNIX provides power, stability and security to OSX. Ok, I admit, my interest was now piqued.

Some folks may know what my enthusiasm is about. For the rest, suffice it to say that a very significant frusteration with Windows, once past the instability and compatibility issues, is its very weak command interpreter. Call it the MSDOS window, or whatever you like, but not only was it lacking in any significant functionality, it even lacked consistent parsing behaviour between versions of NT which supposedly had the same Service Packs. The functionality of the UNIX shell and utilities was available for NT as an expensive add-on from companies such as MKS.

I use the MKS Toolkit on NT to illustrate the point. I was in discussion with one of the programmers in the company that I work for -- he was proposing to write software to extract ranges of lines out of a file, and was running into trouble using the standard Windows development utilities. As we were talking, I opened up the MKS shell and proceeded to show him how to perform his task, taking literally minutes to solve a problem that would have otherwise taken hours. He, being a Windows programmer, was amazed at the power of these utilities. The MKS Toolkit gives you for NT those tools that are included at no extra cost with OSX.

The simplicity with which OSX fits into the average LAN, is the next thing that amazed me. Normally, I keep my files in a repository called CVS, which I use to keep track of the changes to my work. I keep this repository on one machine, my server, and connect to this repository from whatever machine I happen to be working on that day. It took me about 30 seconds to get the Mac to use my repository once I learned that OSX ships with CVS. Using standard internet protocols, such as NFS, it is quite easy to get the Mac working with Linux, UNIX and with Windows. This is all very convenient and it works rather well -- I must say I have never had a new OS give me so little pain, thank you very much!

Some vendors might give their products a face lift now and again, OSX is considerably more than that. Some might release new versions of their product just to increase your level of lock-in and to leverage their monopoly, OSX doesn't do that. Instead Apple has chosen to cautiously open source their internal code. Not often does a company change so fundamentially how it goes about developing software -- Apple has, apparently.

The attraction of this aspect of OSX is nicely captured in this article by the Boston Globe. Jordan Hubbard of the FreeBSD fame, apparently agrees with me ;-)

One of the strengths of open source software is that it leverages the benefits of collaborative development on the Internet. The open source development model is used by products such as BSD and Linux, and these benefit from widespread scrutiny, peer review and also from the contributions of a worldwide development community. In such a world, often fixes are provided before problems become well-known, before small problems get a chance to become really big ones. Arguably, this is far more efficient than the former closed source approach, which depended entirely on the company's own developers to identify and to fix problems in the code. All code has problems, the only difference is that better code is code in which the problems get fixed sooner.

Notably, Apple's competition from Redmond still uses a totally closed development model. Possibly this is one of the reasons why we have crises precipitated upon us, the likes of Code Red and Nimda which affect computers running that vendor's software. Clearly, Apple has chosen a higher road in this regard.

What about annoyances? Ok, I was peeved by Apple's decision to provide only Internet Explorer (IE) and not Netscape as the default web browser in OSX. Admittedly, one of the first things I've done, is gone out and downloaded the latest stable build from Mozilla.org (M). Ok, I may be a sucker for punishment, it is admittedly still somewhat sluggish and true, there is still some functionality that hasn't been completed -- but man, gecko is good. I particularly like the fact that M has a configuration that allows one to limit the number of cycles that those ubiquitous animated gifs will execute (now if I could only figure out how to disable those annoying Flash sequences...). For those who like to look at screens, here is what it looks like with Mozilla and a couple of shell windows open.

Oh yeah, another peeve -- Apple's website. No, don't believe the hype about OSX and iTools being the perfect fit, good web sites don't lock customers out on the basis of the computer they happen to be using when they are trying to get at their information. I tried to verify my iTools e-mail account configuration from my Linux box, (both systems are using the exact same version of the Mozilla browser) and it told me that I needed to be on a Mac to do so. Sure enough, from M on the Mac and it lets me in. Slime, they 'get' the Internet about as well as their brothers in Redmond. But, that is becoming a tangent.

In spite of these adjacent downdrafts, it becomes clear enough that this OS uprade was not your average over-hyped consumer pocket-pick by a major vendor. Apple may be a profitable company, and a huge commercial enterprise, and they certainly are both. However, in spite of it, this is the first time in a very long time, that I spent CAD$200 for software and felt that it was worth every penny of it. If I had chosen to go with Microsoft's Windows XP Professional Edition, which many claim to be equal with OSX, I would been missing many things which I value highly. With XP Pro I would still need to buy the SDK which I use to create software, plus the MKS NuTcracker Toolkit. The combined cost of this would bring the cost of XP in excess of CAD$2000, about ten times the price of OSX. OSX has already included all of that functionality.

Even if one decides that they can live without a functional command interpreter, one is still faced with the fact that XP Professional has a base price of around CAD$500 around here. XP Personal Edition is much more austere than OSX, though at about the same price point.

So these are my initial thoughts and my first experiences with OSX. Contrasted with my experience and observations of Windows, it comes out unquivically favourable. There are undoubtedly many other reasons why OSX just rocks. I may get to writing about them in a few days.

The baseball metaphor finds application as a rating system in many situations. Reminded of Joe Carter's end of game home run in the final game of the World Series in the early '90s, the Blue Jays were trailing, two out, a full count -- and Joe whacks an unlikely pitch right into the stands. We were living in Toronto at the time, and those very same feelings of thrill and exuberance, that describes how I feel about my iBook these days.

The Apple, Reinvented?

OSX is a substantial new product from a company that up until now had been riding on the coattails of their much earlier success -- riding into oblivion. The new operating system combines some of the openness of certain well-known projects such as BSD and Linux, with Apple's own legendary simplicity. Not only does it integrate with the Mac user's previous investment in software, but it does so whilst providing a tangible step forward into the future.

There are two groups of people who ought to consider OSX. If you've been tiring of the instability, the incompatibility, the steep cost of the upgrade treadmill, add to that the constant overhead of updating your virus checker, if you would like a computer solution that just lets you get your work done, then you might have a closer look at the new stuff from Apple.

The other group who should consider OSX, are those who are attracted by the low cost of Open Source software, but who may be intimidated by the steep learning curve of Linux. You may find that OSX provides some of the benefits of Linux with a clean, simple work horse of a user interface. A good blend of both worlds you will find here.

In reflecting on this quantum jump forward in their software technology, I think that this upgrade is rather worthwhile. I am not sure that Steve Jobs is quite the mythical phoenix who arose out of the ashes, there seems to be quite a bit that they still don't get. Their iTools for example, refuses to work for me whenever I connect from my Linux box -- Cupertino or Redmond, at times it's hard to distinguish the farmer from the pig. Irrespective, Jobs has done a really solid work of it when it comes to OSX.

Post Script March 7, 2002
I suppose I am coming out in favour of Apple having tried the test drive. I have used the iBook now as my primary computer for about three months, discounting some downtime in my health in January. The novelty has worn off, but I continue to appreciate its simplicity and elegance. I still like Linux for many things, but I find myself returning to the Mac more often than not when I just want to get things done fast. I am not yet a Mac zealot, hopefully never become such, but the Mac hater in me is definitely conquered. My next computer will likely be another.

It seems I am not alone. As it turns out many reviewers that are comparing OS X with XP, are drawing similar conclusions. For example, this article in the LA Times. The author states: "I use both Macs and Windows XP computers daily, and the Mac is less frustrating, less commercially intrusive and more elegant. Quite simply, it's a better computer." Although he comments about higher cost of the Apple, I have found that often the reverse is true, depending on where you measure. The iBook and the iMac lines are quite competitively priced. Many people find that the Apples are plain and simple, better value than some of the competitive products -- value, that is not always readily apparent on a two-dimensional marketing checklist.

I am sitting here on my iBook surfing the web wirelessly via the Airport connected to a broadband Internet connection -- it is rather sweet. Oh, did I mention painless to set up?


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Copyright © by E. J. Ritzmann.
Last Change $Date: 2002/03/08 02:18:38 $