In the past few weeks there have been a few high-profile Mac bloggers writing about how they are switching to Ubuntu Linux. Mark Pilgrim and Cory Doctorow‘s main beef with the Mac OS seems to be that it is a (mostly) closed platform and the file formats for Apple’s major applications are similarly closed, making it difficult to get your data out once you’ve put it in. I’m simplifying here, but that seems to be gist of it. Bryan O’Bryan, who ran the Mac site ResExcellence, has a bit of a different reason. He’s fed up with Mac users picking nits about his free site and seems to think that the Mac community is full of, for lack of a better phrase, mean people. He also has complaints about the stability of Apple’s software, but he makes it clear that it was the Mac community that tipped him over the edge.
I’ve used Ubuntu briefly, and an embedded version of Linux known as Qtopia fairly extensively. And I hate it. Let me try and explain why. (More after the jump.)
You have to go out of your way in order to become either a Linux user or a Mac user. If you didn’t care about computers, you’d get what most other people had (Windows) and be done with it. No, if you choose Linux or the Mac, you must have a reason. As I see it, most Linux users do not use Linux because they love it. They use it because they love the idea of it. By this I mean that they are convinced that open source and free software are the way to go, and Linux is the natural extension of that. Again, this is just my own impression, but it seems to me that few Linux users are Linux users because they think that Linux has the best programs or the best user experience. They use Linux because of the philosophy behind it, or perhaps because they’re computer geeks (a term I use affectionately) and just like to have complete control over their systems. They value openness or customizability over esthetics and usability.
I, on the other hand, am a Mac user because I think computing shouldn’t be work. Computers should help us actually accomplish what we want to accomplish. They should adjust themselves to the needs of their users, not force users to conform to their arbitrary way of doing things. The Mac makes the most sense to me because it does these things. Specifically, it is easy to use and maintain (although you are of course limited to using it on Apple computers), it is intuitive (for the most part), stable (since the introduction of OS X anyway), safe from viruses and malware (so far), esthetically pleasing (with the exception of a few third-party programs) and it has programs that do everything that I need to do. And yes, I like the Mac community.
Windows loses out to the Mac on most of these points, but Linux also falls short in several areas. Linux in general is not easy to install or configure. Even Ubuntu, which is supposed to be a version of Linux that is accessible by everyone, is not exactly a piece of cake to install and configure. And while it is nice to be able to install Linux on a wide variety of computers, installing and using it on non-standard hardware can be pretty tricky. You may need to write your own device drivers or try and shoehorn existing ones into working with your configuration. I never was able to get Ubuntu to properly install on a subnotebook that I have, and getting bluetooth to work on my Zaurus was quite an experience.
The Linux programs that I have used are in many cases worse than Windows programs in terms of intuitiveness and usability. When you have people working on programs for free in their spare time, you tend to get programs that do what the author wants and not what the user wants. You tend to get things that make sense to computer geeks and not to real people. And of course you can’t get less intuitive than the command line. While I can sort of understand the value people place on openness, I would much rather have a closed program that actually works well and does what I need than a substandard one that happened to be open source.
Viruses and malware aren’t really an issue on either the Mac OS or Linux, and neither is stability, although it is true that Mac OS X makes it easier to understand and change system settings, and I think there are more stable device drivers for the Mac. I suppose esthetics is a matter of personal opinion, but for the most part Linux has chosen to emulate Windows for its window and dialog box design, giving it a somewhat sterile look that I don’t much care for.
With Qtopia, software is quite limited. For example, there is only one really viable RSS reader that I know of, and I only use it because it’s the only one there is. The selection of programs available for desktop Linux is much greater than for Qtopia, but it’s still somewhat limited when compared to what’s available for the Mac. While there are Linux alternatives for some of Apple’s iLife programs, they are rarely as full featured and never as easy to use. But for me personally, the biggest problem is the lack of Microsoft Office. While programs like Open Office do the job in many cases, I need to have full Office compatibility when I’m working on documents for my clients. To tell you the truth, even the Mac version of Office isn’t good enough in some cases. The “Office alternatives” don’t even come close, although they are good on their own terms.
And what about the Mac community? I don’t run a web site (aside from this blog) and I don’t write software, so I don’t have any experience with what Bryan O’Bryan was talking about. But as a user, I’ve found the Mac community (in the form of web sites, blogs, and forums like MacNN‘s) to be both helpful and intellectually stimulating. I think the same can be said of the Linux community, but I have noticed a tendency for Linux users to answer questions in ways that are hard for new users to understand (e.g. telling someone how to do something in the terminal when there is a GUI available or using terms that the average computer user would not be familiar with). There also seems to an attitude among many Linux users that new users should figure out things on their own. Oh, and does anyone really think that telling someone to compile their own version of a program or (gasp!) the OS kernel is a reasonable answer when someone has a problem with a program? Mac users come from all walks of life and tend to include a lot of non-technical users in addition to the geeks. This, combined with the fact that the Mac is generally easier to use and configure, has made the Mac community a lot more useful to me than the Linux community was when I was trying to learn how to configure my Zaurus.
That’s not to say that the concerns of the “Mac to Linux” switchers’ are invalid. We do need to be concerned about being locked in to proprietary formats, and while Mac users have no monopoly on nastiness, we can sometimes be a little overly critical and snobby. I just don’t think that any of these reasons merit giving up everything that I love about the Mac. If Linux had programs that were legitimate alternatives to those available on the Mac, and if the OS were as easy to install and configure, then maybe it would be a real alternative. But I see no need to punish myself by choosing a substandard user experience in the name of “openness.”