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Whoo for Design

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As planned, I bought a MacBook a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been using it pretty obsessively since it showed up in the mail. It’s really nice, and I want to talk about why, but not for very long.

My background is Windows, and before that MS-DOS. The first computer I ever used was a Tandy 1000 SL. It had no hard drive, just two 5 1/4″ floppy drives. You booted everything off of a floppy disk. It could run all kinds of awesome games, like Think Quick. These worms chased you around some castle, but you could use a plunger to distract them. It was great. Also, I wrote book reports for school with this word-processing program; I can’t remember the name of it. The instruction manual for the program included this whole murder mystery story to explain how to use the cut-copy-paste functionality of the program. Instruction manuals nowadays are uninspired and banal.

The second computer we had was a CompuAdd, and it ran Windows 3.1. Windows 3.1 was all right in my book; it was a thin veil you could lay on top of MS-DOS to make it prettier, and like MS-DOS, it was pretty stable. That computer ran Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, which is when I learned how to look things up in an almanac.

Since then, the family’s had several computers, all running Windows. It’s gotten progressively worse, as most people who use it have noticed. XP, now that it’s been out for however many years, is pretty stable, and that’s cool. It took them two major service packs to get it that way, though. This is what happens when I boot my Windows computer running XP (the machine has a 1.8 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM):

  • The BIOS loads and does its song and dance.
  • The RAID drivers for my hard drives do their thing.
  • Windows throws up a loading screen, which looks like it’s about 640 x 480 pixels with 256 colors (=crappy).
  • The login screen shows up; I click my name; I type in my password; I hit Enter.
  • Windows shows me a desktop with no icons on it.
  • Windows draws the icons on my desktop, but with generic icons instead of the correct ones.
  • Windows replaces, one by one, the generic icons with the correct one for each item on my desktop.
  • Windows finishes all its crap and lets me actually interact with the desktop.

This takes about five minutes from the time I hit the power button to the time I can actually open a program.

This is what happens when I boot my new MacBook (2.0 GHz processor, 512 MB RAM):

  • I press the power button.
  • The computer makes a pleasant sound and shows me a neutral grey screen with a loading thingy.
  • A status bar shows up (which actually does not measure anything).
  • The login screen shows up; I click my name; I type in my password; I hit Enter. I mean Return.
  • The fully rendered desktop, all icons in place, shows up on the screen; the Dock saunters in from the right.

That takes about 30 seconds.

This is how you install a program in Windows: download the file, run the install program, which asks you about where you want to put the program, do you want a desktop icon, do you want a start menu icon, do you want to associate files with it, you need to restart your computer, BLAH!

This is how you install a program on Mac OS: download the disk image thing, double click it, and drag the program to your Applications directory. Boom.

It’s silly to try to say that one operating system is “better” in some qualitative, absolute sense. But Mac OS is better for me. And also in general.

At this point, I am, in fact, completely off the Microsoft. I have a ton of Word and Excel files lying around, but there’s this group called OpenOffice.org, and also NeoOffice for the Mac, which makes a suite of programs which have almost all the functionality of the Microsoft Office Suite, but are free. And that’s a good price.

There’s nothing else I can say about the Mac OS that hasn’t already been said too many times. To me, the biggest difference between it and Windows is this: in Windows, you constantly have the feeling that you are using things that were hacked together early in the development process, and then got a fresh coat of paint quickly applied before being released. On the Mac, you constantly have the feeling that someone sat down and thought hard about the programs you’re using and spent a lot of time polishing them before they ever got to you. Maybe you don’t agree with their decisions all the time, but they were at least actively making design choices, and that counts for a lot. Now I’m done.

Written by Daniel Grady

August 28, 2006 at 00:40

Posted in Fanboy

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.

Written by Daniel Grady

June 21, 2006 at 23:33

Posted in Fanboy