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When I’m 64

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There’s a very interesting discussion I ran across today regarding Mac OS X. Since this post will essentially be me doing nothing more than aping their ideas, I’ll summarize it quickly. The discussion is also fairly long; it’s thanks to the oversight (or lack thereof) in my government-funded internship position that I was afforded the leisure to go through it myself.

  1. Mark Pilgrim is a computing professional and 22-year Apple user who recently wrote a post for his blog describing his decision to abandon the Mac OS in favor of Ubuntu. His reasons for switching have much to do with Apple’s tendency towards the closed-box mentality; their products are some of the most polished available today, but the inner workings of those products, and specifically many of the file formats they use to store your iApp creations, are closely-guarded secrets. The end result is that you get a product that is beautiful and a pleasure to use, but one that also locks you in. Should you want to export your iMovie edits or your iPhoto library metadata at any point in the future, you will find it unpleasantly difficult. These two applications are merely examples; the problem itself is endemic to most of Apple’s bundled applications, and this is what finally killed the Mac for Pilgrim.

  2. John Gruber of Daring Fireball, a blog in which he comments on Mac news and writes longer opinion pieces, linked to Pilgrim’s announcement and made a remark which some of Gruber’s readers interpreted as meaning that Pilgrim dropped the Mac solely because he had some problems with data corruption. Many of those readers then went to Pilgrim’s site and, without necessarily reading the article, posted comments lambasting Pilgrim/evangelizing the Mac; the statement that the Mac OS is “better” than other OSes was frequently invoked.

  3. In a lengthy response, Gruber apologized for the undue hostility of these readers, criticized them for completely missing the point, and clarified exactly what that point was. He ended the piece by saying, essentially, that while he understood and respected Pilgrim’s decision, he did not feel that data lock-in was that significant a problem for the Mac. After all, Gruber points out, the Mac OS has been around in one form or another for 22 years; if data lock-in were going to cause a catastrophe, it would have already.

  4. Pilgrim provided a laundry list of incidents in the history of the Mac OS when proprietary file formats have caused very real and significant problems for him personally.

Since I’ve decided to purchase a Mac in the near future, I was considerably interested in this exchange; in fact, it made me reexamine my reasons for wanting to switch to the Mac OS from Windows. The issues that Pilgrim brought up I hadn’t even considered prior to reading his complaints, yet he makes a very valid point. The beautiful interfaces, the “it just works” aspect, many of the Mac’s touted features, all hinge upon very specific, very closed standards that Apple certainly isn’t anxious to open up. iTunes library metadata, email archives, iPhoto library metadata, iMovie edits: all this information is stored in proprietary, undocumented formats; often the data file itself is completely hidden from the user. The threat of losing a significant part of my accumulated stuff if Apple ever stops supporting these standards or if I ever decide to move to a different platform is very real.

For people like me, and by that I mean people my age, this is something of a rude awakening. Microsoft Word has been around nearly as long as I’ve been using computers. There was that Tandy 1000SL back in the day, but every computer since then in my family’s household has run some version of Windows. The thought that I might one day not be able to open my .doc files in Word is rather disarming. I think the immediate future is pretty safe, but Pilgrim raises a good question: What about when I’m 80? Although preserving every essay I ever had to write on “Huckleberry Finn” is pretty far from my mind, I’m willing to accept that some of the data I am producing at this point in my life will be things I want to hang on to indefinitely. Is Apple going to help me do that?

The answer to that question, based on everything I’ve seen regarding OS X and not just Pilgrim’s indictment, is no. It’s to Apple’s advantage, business-wise, to keep customers tied to their products, and until a majority of customers recognize this problem and demand a change, there will undoubtedly be none. However, that’s not enough of a reason for me to not buy a Mac. The rationale goes directly back to the point Gruber made: Pilgrim switched to Ubuntu because that choice made the most sense for him and for what he does. For me and what I do, however, the switch to Mac OS still has an inescapable logic.

Although I’m sure that some of the information I produce in the next five years will be worth keeping, I have to ask myself exactly how much of it, and which parts, will be things I’ll want to look at years from now? Unlike Pilgrim, I am not the kind of person who is concerned about keeping email records going back a decade or more; nor do I have or plan on accumulating gigabytes of video footage, pictures, and associated metadata. The only things I produce of any consequence in the next five years will almost certainly be written in MATLAB, Mathematica, LaTex, or an open-source programming language. MATLAB and Mathematica are both proprietary, but there’s nothing I can do about that, and their file formats at least are transparent. This difference in focus on what we consider important enough to archive is the greatest disparity in thinking between Pilgrim and I, and because of it, the closed-format mentality of the iApp collection is a non-issue for me.

The other significant point that helped me make this decision is that, again unlike Pilgrim, my choice is essentially binary: I’m either going to be using Windows or Mac OS. At this point in my life, if my choice is between Windows and something else, I’ll pick the something else. I want an operating system that doesn’t inexplicably reset the transfer rate on my IDE channels every month or so, that has a consistent user interface, that doesn’t have an internet browser so inextricably linked to the OS that new security holes are discovered daily, that doesn’t take 10 seconds to redraw the desktop under heavy CPU load, that has some semblance of logical design underpinning it, and Windows fails on all those points. Nothing that I’ve seen written about Vista has convinced that it will be different from XP in any crucial way. Linux would fit the bill, but as far as it’s come, Linux is still something that I would have to “deal with” if I decided to run that on my personal computer, and I don’t want to be tied down to an operating system that I have zero experience with. Besides, if I ever change my mind, I can always just run it on a MacBook.

It is my hope that in the future Apple will be forced to address the problems Pilgrim brings up, but this may be misguided optimism. After all, how many average consumers care about these issues? How many average consumers are even aware of them? For someone like Mark Pilgrim, who has years of experience and years of involvement with software, a problem like data lock-in may be glaringly obvious, but I would be surprised if many people purchasing computers today even identify it as a possible concern. I’m quite happy that I happened across this discussion, however, since it’s made me aware. And knowing you have a problem is half the battle.

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Written by Daniel Grady

June 21, 2006 at 23:33

Posted in Fanboy

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