After a terribly disappointing round of announcements at WWDC, I’m giving serious reconsideration to my affiliation with Apple and the Mac OS X platform. I’ve grown weary of Apple’s constant push to upgrade – if you’re not running the latest version of Mac OS X you may as well be running DOS. I’m tired of their flirting with the server and enterprise markets – they offer some fairly decent servers in the Xserve, but they run Mac OS X Server on them, which is an excellent server operating system if you don’t mind system management practices that date back to the early Eighties and a reliance on GUI tools – almost all of which only run on a Mac OS X client, by the way – for doing things remotely. I’m not the only one leaving or considering leaving the polished white and brushed metal of the Apple camp. I agree with both Mark and Cory’s reasons, but I’ve got my own personal gripes to air.
Mac OS X is slow for a Unix. There are documented performance problems with Mac OS X, many of which stem from the Mach microkernel, from which the Mac OS X kernel XNU descends. Mach relies heavily on passing messages from one internal construct to another which levies a drastic performance cost, and this makes Mac OS X Server a lousy choice for the vast majority of what I do with servers: Web and database stuff. It also shows in the client, I believe; my PowerBook (G4 1.5GHz, 1GB RAM), while not the newest machine in the world, is sluggish, far more so than my even older Windows XP machine (Athlon XP 2500+, 1GB RAM) at home. Admittedly, you could easily argue that the Athlon in my PC is a faster chip than the G4, but that’s not what Apple would’ve had you believe back when the G4 and G5 were current chips, and the fact is my PC is still built with older components than my PowerBook. Speaking of that, Apple telling people the PowerPC chips were superior in spite of the slower clock speeds is something else that grinds my gears. Let’s go back a few years, to remember what they used to say. Clock speed is all marketing. The PowerPC is more efficient. The G4 is a supercomputer. Intel sucks. Fine, whatever. But why, Apple, are you forcing your supporters who backed your PowerPC play in the community to eat crow with the great switch to Intel chips? It doesn’t – or at least, it shouldn’t – engender a high level of grassroots support by us fans in the field.
Furthermore, I’m tired of the “look at Microsoft copy us” rhetoric. It started at WWDC two years ago and they engaged it in again this year. Friendly rivalry is cute and generally benefits the consumer, but with these guys it’s become frothy-mouthed zealotry. The way Steve Jobs was talking at the keynote on Monday, you’d think Apple had invented two Leopard features unveiled therein:
- Time Machine – A way to get back old versions of files that you accidentally overwrote, implemented in Windows Server 2003 a few years back and in VMS decades.
- Spaces – Virtual desktops so you can have more effective screen real estate, something that Unix and X have been able to do with one window manager or another since the late 1980′s.
They tout each new feature as though they alone conceived of it and that it’s completely unique to their platform, and I’d imagine to the overwhelming majority of their users who don’t care enough to go digging, those perceived claims are upheld and Apple, once again, is the only company doing any innovation in the realm of personal computing. Apple also has a nasty tendency to take – sometimes wholesale – the work of other developers and integrate it into their own apps and system without so much as a by-your-leave. A while back it was Panther, I believe, that stole the work of Proteron’s LiteSwitch app-switcher that fired off when you hit cmd+tab, and next year it appears that Leopard will be taking DesktopManager and calling it the aforementioned “Spaces” along with – something they’re calling new and original – MailTags and its ability to create to-do items and notes from messages in Mail. These developers are small and these applications, even though they’re shareware or donation-ware, are in part or in whole how these people earn their living. They were the first, or at the very least the best, at bringing those valuable features to Mac OS X users around the world. But, if it’s a good idea, Apple might steal it. At least Microsoft has the courtesy to purchase the companies that make some of the best tools, utilities, and games for Windows and the Xbox (see the Wikipedia entry “List of companies acquired by Microsoft Corporation” for a much more complete list). Apple just takes the ideas they like from their community. With friends like that, why should a small developer innovate on Apple’s platform? I’d rather get bought by Microsoft than stolen from by Apple.
Cost and Value
The common catcall from the anti-Mac crowd for many years has been “Macs cost more.” The party line response from Apple’s fans has been something to the effect of “You get what you pay for. BMWs cost more than Hondas, but you don’t hear BMW owners complaining.” At least, until it comes time for an oil change. Or a radiator repair. That’s kind of been my experience with the Mac, to a large degree, as well. Apple has a constant upgrade cycle, for all their software including Mac OS X, and it grows old having to shell out $70-$130 every year for new applications. That’s also not including their .Mac service, which is a guaranteed $100 a year for something that lots of people claim isn’t that good anyway. I used to have a .Mac account, but I stopped paying for it after I started working for Apple and got it for free, and when I moved to my current employer I didn’t feel that it was in any worth picking back up. But, if you want to synchronize your data easily between two Macs, or use their Backup tool to its full extent, or make one-click iPhoto albums, you have to pay for their walled Internet garden. I’ve already got a web host, Apple. It works well. It provides me with WebDav access to my site, which is the same protocol your apps use to access .Mac. Why do you want more money from me to pay for a service I’ve already got, for far less, from someone else? Apple tries to claim that I don’t need to upgrade. I don’t need to do a lot of things, but if I want to have software updates and enhancements beyond security updates then, yeah, I do need to upgrade. It also doesn’t hurt them that as they introduce new features and subsystems into their OS, application developers pick up on them, and suddenly you need Mac OS X v10.latest just to run a text editor.
One of the hallmarks of Apple and of Mac OS X for a few years were the constant state of improvements and progress in the OS. It got more stable, faster, better looking, and more supported as time went by. The user base grew accustomed to this dynamism, and so its present absence is quite striking. I suppose it’s inevitable, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. With the Leopard preview at WWDC, I was really hoping to see some improvements to Finder which is so very, very terrible in its current state in Mac OS X. It’s a pale imitation of the predictability and cleanliness of the Finder in Mac OS 9; that Finder was so solid from a usability standpoint that the GNOME project’s Nautilus file manager was patterned after it and it’s spatial paradigm, where the window displaying a folder is, for all intents and purposes, the folder. It was easy for users to understand, and it makes a lot of sense. Meanwhile, Mac OS X’s Finder has more in common with NeXT’s file manager, and is just a mess. Here’s some other people who criticize Finder: John Gruber – Daring Fireball, John Siracusa – Ars Technica (and here where he talks about how Leopard might be our chance), and Daniel Eran – RoughlyDrafted here, here, and here.
I was really hoping to see fixes for my two big issues with it:
- It’s Brushed Metal, unless you click the pill-shaped icon in the upper-right corner of the window, in which case it looks like the older, better Finder windows, but just that one window. There doesn’t appear to be a good way to set this globally.
- It’s unstable. Not counting beta software – OmniWeb and Opera, I’m looking at you – it’s the least stable and trustworthy app on my Mac, which is sad considering the important job it has.
- It’s inconsistent. If I’ve got a folder open in three different windows, with three different views – icon view, list view, and column view – then does the order in which I close those windows determine what they’ll show when they last open? That’s kinda dumb, and is a problem solved by the spatial metaphor – when you open a folder in a spatial file manager, it opens the window for that folder, and subsequent openings of that folder simply bring its window to the front.
These three problems combine to make one crappy application, and since most people think of the Finder as “the computer” since it’s what’s running when they start it up, it doesn’t exactly look good for it when they can’t even figure out why it’s displaying their data the way it is.
Loving the Journey?
I want to love Mac OS X. For a few years, I did love it. But Apple’s become distracted by iPods, as near as I can tell, and is rapidly forgetting the operating system that put them back in the computing game. It could be so good. It’s a solid Unix, despite its flaws, there are loads and loads of good applications for it, people adore the systems on which it runs, and it’s Not Microsoftâ„¢. But it feels like in spite of how far they’ve come, they’ve still got a long, long way to go, and I’m wondering if it’s time to stop paying them to get there since I’ve been doing that for a while now and we’re still not at our destination.