Monday, 2 May 2011

I'm a PC, I'm a Mac, I'm Linux

<span class=iMac-1.JPG">A friend from work went out and spent almost $5000 on buying the latest 27” highest grade Mac. Being that he’s a guy I can properly interrogate I went ahead with cross examinations, trying to fathom what it is that makes people spend so much money on an Apple Mac when they can get superior hardware for less than $2000. That “other” platform will run the same or similar applications as the expensive Mac, which makes the question even more relevant.
Both my friend and I do not pay much attention to the cool image Apple’s marketing has very effectively created. When it comes down to functionality, my friend’s arguments in favour of his Mac experience came down to the following:
  1. He was sick and tired of Windows. Macs offered the only alternative known to him.
  2. With the Mac, everything worked straight away, out of the box. There was no need to set this thing up here or to install another thing there. There are no delays from the time you bring your computer home to the time you can start using it.
  3. Running a Mac is virtually maintenance free. You don’t need to pay attention to stuff like anti-virus updates or other software updates.
  4. Running the same applications on the Mac provides superior user experience to running it on Windows. Things are slicker.
I agree with all of the above arguments. I disagree with the choice of the Mac solution, though: I found all of the above applied to me just the same with my choice of adopting Linux and its Ubuntu distribution as my PC operating system of choice. With Ubuntu I can achieve the same results as my friend while spending less than half the money. All the while I will also be supporting the great human collaboration endeavour that is behind Linux instead of supporting a greedy and morally corrupt company such as Apple.
I do not dismiss the Mac option all the way, though. Clearly it is needed for some professional applications not supported [yet] by Linux, such as Photoshop. On the other hand, I often pity those who totally rely on Microsoft Windows to run their PCs without realizing better options are out there. Yet even Windows has its uses: in real life there are still many things that will only work on Windows, especially at the work environment; that is why Microsoft is winning the battle by forcing its way into our schools and offices.

Despite all my praise for Linux, I cannot avoid noticing the elephant in its room. In too many respects, Linux is not ready to take its place with the simple and generally computer illiterate user.
Last night I upgraded my six year old desktop to the latest Ubuntu release, 11.4 (aka Natty). The main feature of this release is its use of a new interface called Unity to replace the very Windows (but highly customizable) like Gnome that was always there with the Ubuntu PC releases before.
Unity was available in the previous Netbook Remix Ubuntu release and I didn’t like it; it made my netbook too slow and it occupied too much of the netbook's already limited screen real estate. I quickly solved the problem by installing the regular Ubuntu version, which works like a charm still.
I like it Unity even less with this latest Natty release. The first thing to happen after the post upgrade to Natty reboot was my desktop not rebooting! No worries, though: booting in safe mode, I quickly discovered the problem is down to my old graphics card’s inability to support Unity. I booted in the Classic Ubuntu mode (still available) and that was it for my problem. Doesn't feel like much of an upgrade now, though, with everything looking the same as before…
To be honest, I don’t see the point in Unity. One of the main reasons I like Linux is its performance; why does it have to insist on installing an interface that slows things down so much it makes me think I’m back with Windows? It’s not like Unity changes your entire perception of the way computing is done either: it is not like moving from DOS to Windows 95 and it is not like the touch interface first successfully offered by Apple’s iOS devices that even a two year old can handle. Unity is perfectly ordinary and mundane, yet heavy on computer resources.
I had other issues with the Natty upgrade, like my microphone not being recognized anymore (thus preventing me from using Skype on my desktop). I suspect I would be able to solve that, too, if I was to try.
For now, my point is simple: an ordinary computer user who does not know how to tinker would still have too many reasons to avoid Linux by labelling it “too hard”. I don’t think Windows is much better there, judging by the number of Windows users totally unaware of the amount of malware on their PCs. The way things are, these users are either stuck with Windows or have to open their wallets wide for Apple. Both are nasty compromises.

Image by dnwallace, Creative Commons license

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