Washington Apple Pi

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Jedi versus the Borg:
Mac OS X in a Microsoft World

By Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, May/June 2002, reprint information

Grumble, grumble

One of the great ironies of the past year is the success of Mac OS X. This might not be immediately obvious. Many long-time Mac fanatics have yet to succumb to the charms of the new, cutting-edge operating system, complaining loudly that Mac OS X isn't very Mac-like. Some noteworthy luminaries, including a few former high priests of the Macintosh user interface, have buttressed this claim, suggesting that there is nothing to the Macintosh except the interface, and that Mac OS X doesn't faithfully preserve it. Therefore, presumably, Mac OS X is nothing.

Moving away from the high priests to the world of the "average user," there are lots of raucous gripes about the number of applications available. "It has been almost a year; why haven't they ported Landfill Management 7.2 to Mac OS X? The entire landfill management industry will abandon the Mac for Windows if this isn't available on Mac OS X by Wednesday!" Apparently Apple, and the entire Mac vendor community, is criminally irresponsible for failing to duplicate in one year the wealth of applications developed for "classic" Mac OS over nearly twenty years. It would be a shame to have landfills run with Windows...

And yet -- Mac OS X is a hit. There really are thousands of applications available, ranging from old mainstays such as ClarisWorks and Microsoft Office to spectacular brand new ones such as OmniWeb, StoneStudio and Maya. Combined with the wealth of applications still available through Mac OS Classic, the range of choices and possibilities has never been greater.

Don't believe me? Then take a look:






If the traditionalists seem to have colic, where are these ardent Mac OS X fans coming from? After all, in the "real world," Windows won, so if the Mac faithful have lost faith, who is left? Is there anybody?


Despite the headlines, the world has not been totally consumed by Microsoft. True, Windows (all flavors) and Mac OS (all flavors) do account for somewhere around 95% of those roaming the Internet (one of the easiest things to measure), but there are lots of other strange beasts out there. If you administer a Web server, you'll see the occasional visits from WebTV users (no computer at all, really), BeOS stalwarts, UNIX gurus in various guises, Linux fanatics, and even an occasional Atari user. The universe of the Internet is rich and varied, though a few areas -- the vast wastelands of MSN (Microsoft Network), for example -- are devoid of diversity, having fallen victim to digital ethnic cleansing.

Microsoft intends to rid the computing world of chaos by making it one homogenous offshoot of -- surprise! -- Microsoft. Web designers and program writers, in the forthcoming Brave New World, will no longer have to worry if people are using a Mac or a PC or a UNIX machine, or are using Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape or Opera or OmniWeb. The clamorous din of the rabble will give way to the nice, melodious major and minor chords of the Microsoft opera, with an all-Microsoft cast playing all major, minor and supporting roles.

Or not. There is no question a large ABM (Anybody But Microsoft) movement is active in the digital world. The rebels seem to be divided into three main camps:

1) Linux and UNIX users: these tend to be technically savvy users who want more control over their digital lives than Microsoft offers.

2) Apple users: these tend to be users who see computers as both a tool and an esthetic, and find the Microsoft world too confining and confounding.

3) Lapsed Microsoftics: these tend to be users who were raised in Microsoft families, attended Microsoft schools, but found the Microsoft faith to be ethically, morally or digitally lacking, and are looking for salvation elsewhere.

These camps, until recently, had almost nothing in common. The Linux/UNIX zealots were considered throwbacks to an earlier, more complex era in computing; the Apple/Mac users were not really computer users at all, but coddled, pampered members of an odd cult; and the lapsed Microsoftics were no different than any group bordering on apostasy -- more noted for their anger and discontent than for anything else.

Until recently, the ABM forces seemed to be nothing but annoying footnotes. Microsoft's libretto, composed with Microsoft software and printed on Microsoft Partner-approved equipment, seemed to be the only show in town. Until recently --

So what happened recently? Mac OS X happened. Combining something old (UNIX) with something new (powerful desktop and laptop machines) and something not quite new (traditional, "Classic" Mac OS), Mac OS X has created a sensation in the UNIX and Linux communities. Apple's "free" programs -- iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto -- have seduced countless thousands of Windows users into "trying out" Macs. Now, if the Macintosh grumps would only get on the bandwagon...

What does UNIX offer that Windows doesn't? The answer: freedom. Since 1969, UNIX has had an odd life, growing up in research labs and universities. These environments put a premium on getting things done, and assume the user is halfway intelligent. How something looks is irrelevant -- unless, of course, "look" is important to a task -- so ease of use, and even consistency, are not as important as function. Even more striking is the reward system: researchers and scholars are rewarded with recognition for getting something done, rather than (ahem) money, so there is a long history of free exchange of programs, techniques and discoveries in the UNIX world. As long as the source is credited, everyone is happy.

On the other hand, all attempts to make UNIX a "commercial" operating system have failed. In fact, about the same time Apple introduced the Macintosh, a company called Fortune introduced a UNIX-based desktop machine with a nice graphical front end; Fortune vanished without trace, as have countless other attempts. The university and professional UNIX fans split into two competing camps, with the West Coast factions favoring BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) UNIX and the East Coast factions favoring AT&T UNIX, both of which rarely left the campus or research park.

In the 1990s, Hewlett-Packard (H-P), Silicon Graphics (SGI) and Sun all managed to make UNIX popular for high-end scientific workstations, but SGI has since left the UNIX fold, and H-P is now concentrating on consumer-level Windows computers. Meanwhile, Linux, an open source UNIX work-alike, burst on the scene, running on inexpensive Intel-based computers and gradually creeping into the "professional" UNIX bastions. The grass-roots popularity of Linux inspired investors to sink billions of dollars in companies that would "bring Linux to the desktop," competing with Windows. It didn't happen.

The many languages of Mac OS X

The multi-language support in Mac OS X, including support of non-Roman languages, is nothing less than astonishing. Opening up all the Read-Me files for iTunes is a trivial, but spectacular, demonstration of Apple's low-key campaign to win converts through, literally, speaking their own language.

Mixed movie metaphors

Instead, Mac OS X happened. Apple, the only survivor of the "original" personal computer companies (Apple, Atari, Commodore and Radio Shack), took BSD UNIX, wrapped it in an attractive Aqua shell, and -- amazing! -- successfully sold it to the masses. When 2002 dawned, Apple, of all things, was the largest manufacturer of UNIX workstations in the world.

And, unlike Sun or H-P UNIX, or Linux, Mac OS X is easy to install, easy to update, easy to configure, and easy to use. Most revolutionary, of course, is that you can use Mac OS X and never bother to learn much, if anything, about UNIX. The original Mac OS X 10.0 release wasn't particularly Mac-like, but it certainly wasn't much like UNIX, either. The current version (as of this writing, Mac OS X 10.1.3) looks and acts very Mac-like indeed. No, it isn't the same as Mac OS 9 -- but that's not all bad, either.

For Linux zealots, Mac OS X offers the power of UNIX (which is what attracted them to Linux in the first place) coupled with the ease of use of a Macintosh. For Windows apostates, Mac OS X offers a new-found freedom from the dictates of Redmond, and a chance to see if the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. For open-source software authors, Mac OS X offers an inexpensive, widely supported, and stunningly attractive platform for showing off their wares. For all of them, there are those marvelous toys: iMovie, iDVD, iPhoto, iTunes, iPod...

Apple has stumbled on an interesting strategy for expanding its market share. While Microsoft tries to assimilate everyone and everything into the Microsoft way (their headquarters address, not surprisingly, is One Microsoft Way), Apple gently promotes a more accommodating style, in tune with the fabric of the universe rather than in opposition to it.

Apple claims it is not at war with Microsoft -- and that is true. The Apple Jedi Knights are not interested in battle; instead, they are showing an alternate, very attractive path. They do not oppose the Microsoft Borg Collective, but they don't want to be part of it, either. And that freedom from the Collective is quickly gathering converts from the other digital disciplines.

At a recent trade show, I found one long-time UNIX developer showing a complex suite of GIS (Geographic Information System) packages running on a Power Mac G4. The Power Mac was running Mac OS X, and on top of Mac OS X the developer was running X11 (X Window), the classic UNIX graphical user interface. On top of X11, he was running the suite of GIS packages.

After a few minutes, he closed down X Window, and brought up a beta-version of the GIS packages which he'd rewritten to take explicit advantage of Mac OS X and Aqua. "This will be much better."

Another Jedi Knight has found the path.