Why I probably won’t be upgrading to Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion

With the impending release of Mountain Lion, Apple’s new version of the OS X operating system, I’ve been giving some thought to whether I’ll bother upgrading or not. I am, or at least I used to be, what many would refer to as a Mac Fanboy. I still think Apple builds the best consumer computer hardware on the planet, and, so far anyway, OS X is probably still the best desktop/laptop operating system currently available. A few years ago I would not have included the “probably” qualifier in that last sentence, but lately I’m feeling more and more disenfranchised with Apple and their litigious nature and walled garden approach to creating customer lock-in.

It’s not that I don’t like their products. I do. I have several Macs, iPads, iPhones, and Apple TVs. Walled garden or not, they build beautiful products that –  for the most part – do exactly what they claim… they just work. While I don’t always approve of their proprietary attitude to the way they build their products, I understand the design goals that such a hardware and software symbiosis achieves, and I would still rather use a Mac than any other machine. However, just lately I’m feeling more and more disconnected from my “fanboyism”.

Maybe it’s because I had to recently downgrade my home iMac from Lion back to Snow Leopard because it was just consistently running like crap… constant hard drive spinning, excessive memory use and disk activity, and just general poor performance. Now I’m back at Snow Leopard and it runs a lot better. I admit it’s an older iMac, and maybe I never should have taken it to Lion in the first place, but the new features like full screen mode and gestural interactions were tempting me to try them so I upgraded to Lion anyway. In return I got generally sluggish performance, some weird buggy behaviours and several UI features that I thought were rather broken.

So I’m pondering what to do about Mountain Lion. Several people I know who’ve been running the Gold Master tell me it’s quite stable and runs very nicely. While I do usually like to be on the latest versions of everything, I don’t want to go back to lousy performance on a machine that is admittedly probably a little old and lacking in RAM to truly get the best out of 10.8.

But even for my much newer MacBook Pro that should be just fine to run Mountain Lion, as I read through the list of new features and benefits, I can’t say I’m feeling compelled by any of them, even at the bargain price of $19.99.

iCloud Integration: While it’s a nice idea in concept, I have nearly all of the iCloud features turned off. My mail, calendars and contacts are all stored on Gmail and sync directly to my devices from the Google Cloud. It took a little more time to set it up this way using Google Sync, I find it far more reliable than the iCloud way of keeping things in sync.

Notification Centre: I’m not sure I want that big panel of notifications interfering with my workflow. Maybe it’s not as bad as it appears in the screenshots I’ve seen, but it looks very intrusive. I have Growl. It works fine and already gives notifications for most of the things that matter to me, so I’m not sure why I’d want more.

New Safari: I use Chrome almost exclusively. I think it’s a great browser that is actually far more than a browser. The Chrome App Store is amazing, and I really don’t even feel the need to have Safari on my computer at all.

New Mail: I use Gmail at both home and work. I like the web interface. I like that it’s the same on every machine I use, even the ones I don’t own. The last thing I want is all my mail sitting on my hard drive, and I find mail.app to be a bit of a nuisance so I’d be happy to not have it at all.

Gatekeeper: I really don’t want Apple telling me (even more than they do now) what software I can or can’t have on my machine. From what I’ve read about Gatekeeper I would most likely be turning its security settings right down anyway, so I don’t feel compelled by it very much.

Twitter and Facebook integration: I guess this might be useful to have, but I don’t think it’s a deal breaker. I know how to cut and paste.

Game Center: I Just. Don’t. Care.

There’s other features in the list, but honestly, none of them really jump out and grab me as must-haves. In general I’m not terribly excited at all about the “iOS-ification” of my desktop environment. I like my iPad, but I don’t feel the need for my desktop machines to be dumbed down and made more iOS-like.  I’d rather Apple (and Microsoft too for that matter) focus more on operating systems where security, stability and usability, were the real features rather than trying to make my MacBook Pro behave more like my iPad.

Of course, my rebellion comes at a price. As I write this on my iMac, my other machine is completely rebuilding its Aperture library because the version of the Aperture database that ran under Lion is not backward compatible with the earlier version, so on Snow Leopard I could no longer access my photo library. Annoying. I’m sure that I’ll also have problems with Final Cut X if I don’t upgrade eventually too. No doubt there will be further incompatibilities with other applications (yes, remember “applications”… that’s what they were called before everything became just “apps”) and at some point in the future I will probably have to buy new hardware and move to the most current version of OSX if I plan to to stay on the Mac platform.

I’ve been using personal computers for a long time. I’ll happily admit to being a “power user” and I rather object to Apple’s insistent belief that they need to dumb down my computer because they think I can’t cope with a file system, or that I should suddenly start scrolling in the opposite direction because it’s more “iPad like”, or that I should have fewer choices available because I need to have the software decide what’s best for me. I still think that, in terms of general usability, OS X has an edge over Windows and Linux, but the gap is getting much smaller. I even bought an Android Galaxy Nexus phone recently  to compare it to the iPhone and, while I still prefer the iPhone overall, it’s not by a very big margin. This monkey has definitely got a gun, to quote Andy Inhatko.

I have to also admit that my impression of Apple might be coloured by the outrageously stupid patent disputes they insist on engaging in. I’m appalled at their puerile and childish behaviour, apparently preferring to litigate rather than innovate their way to more success. Apple, you are better than this. Stop wasting your creative energy worrying about what the other guys are doing, because they are going to do it anyway. You can’t continue to take out injunctions against every other product that looks vaguely, kinda-sorta like your precious iPhone. Just build a better iPhone and stop whining that other people “stole” your ideas, because, let’s face it, you’ve done your own share of stealing ideas over the years. “Slide to unlock” should not be a patentable idea. Active links in an email should not be a patentable idea. Get over it and just build something better.

Name that Network

By default, your computer’s drives usually have creative names like “My Computer” or “Macintosh HD”. Home wireless networks usually have equally uninteresting default names, like “linksys” or “netgear”, or that ultimate of all default SSID names, “default”. USB Memory sticks and portable USB drives often have even less interesting names, usually based on their brand, or a series of random characters.

Some people give their computing equipment names that make them a little more interesting, or at least a little more unique and personal. I’ve seen people use names of planets, Greek gods, fictional characters, and many other esoteric collections as the source of inspiration for the names of their networks and computing gear. I once worked as the network manager in a Catholic school where all the servers were named after saints. IT geeks often have an unusual sense of humour, and it commonly shows up in things like this.

As I was running some backups tonight on my two main home computers, my attention was drawn to the names I’ve given to my own machines, drives and home network over the last few years. There is a common, albeit fairly geeky, thread behind their names.

See if you guess where I got my inspiration from… if you think you know where these names come from, drop me a comment below.

My MacBook Pro’s hard drive is named Raskin and the backup drive is named Atkinson. My iMac’s hard drive is named Hertzfeld, and it has a backup drive named Engelbart and several terabytes of attached storage on drives named Wozniak and Tesler. Finally, my wifi network is named Espinosa.

If you can tell me what all these names have in common, without Googling them, then you are obviously pretty darn geeky yourself!

You’ve come a long way!

I remember back in the mid 90s I started to hear more and more about this upstart operating system for computers called Linux. It was an alternative to Windows and Mac, and was based on an open source project started in 1991 by a student in Helsinki named Linus Torvalds.  I thought it sounded like a fascinating project and I liked the sound of it, since any alternative to Windows had to be a good thing.  In about 1997 there was lots of talk about this new OS and its potential so I wanted to give it a shot. I originally tried to install it on my trusty old Thinkpad using a copy of Redhat Linux that came free on the cover of a computer magazine, but I didn’t have much luck so abandoned it at the time.

Not long after that I heard the infamous John “Mad dog” Hall speak at a computer show in Sydney, where he passionately and logically espoused the virtues of open source software as a legitimate alternative to commercial software such as Windows and Office.  I recall he made some really compelling arguments because I came away from that talk determined to get this Linux thing working so I could try it. I stumbled across a set of SuSE Linux CDs and tried again to install it, but again without success. At about that time, one of my Year 10 students mentioned that his dad worked with Unix and so volunteered his dad to come give me a hand.  Despite the fact that this guy knew Unix (and by extension, knew a lot about Linux, since that’s where Linux evolved from) we still could not get it working.  We kinda, sorta got it working, but the screen was all weird and there was no sound and definitely no networking. There were all sorts of driver issues, and since I was a relative n00b at using the Linux command line, I really didn’t get very far with it.  However, I did at least try to learn some Linux commands which, although I’m hardly an expert, have come in very handy at various times in my career working with computers and networks.

I really wanted to like Linux. I principle, I really like the concept of an open source operating system, built by a community of users and freely released to the world.  I like the ideology behind Linux, for much the same reason that I like the ideology behind Wikipedia. The world is a better place when we openly share with each other and together we are better than any single one of us.  But no matter how much I wanted to like Linux, the fact remained that I just simply could not get it working with any degree of satisfaction on any hardware I owned. Either the network wouldn’t work, or the sound wouldn’t work, or the screen would only show at 640×480… but I never seemed to be able to get a fully functional system that presented a credible threat to the commercial OSes.

Gradually though, things began to change, and I watched Linux take a big hold in the server space. I ran a school network for a few years and we had a number of Linux servers running various parts of the network. These servers were doing backend webserver work and ran without the need for a GUI… they were ridiculously hard for me to work with (I guess I’m just not that geeky!) but they were totally bulletproof as servers. They often ran for months without any issues and really showed me that Linux was a powerful, stable OS, even if I did find it quite unfriendly to work with.  I just found that terminal a little too intimidating and hard to use, and although I could work out the commands to type in when I needed to, it was clear that I was just not ready for Linux in my day to day desktop existence.

Things really started to change when I saw Ubuntu.  The wonderful Pia Waugh showed me Ubuntu in a workshop and it was a massive improvement over any previous Linux distribution I’d seen. It had a drop-dead simple installation process, lots of apps included and had a GUI that was quite intuitive to use. I installed it on a few machines and it was almost, nearly, but not quite there. I still had minor issues with getting wireless to work, and a few other little things, but mostly it was clear that it was a massive step forward in ease of use.  By this stage, I’d dumped Windows from my day to day computing existence and had moved back to a Mac. The Mac’s ease of use, reliability, speed and performance was like a breath of fresh air… everything, as the ads say, just worked.

I still love my Macs, and along with the iPhone and iPad, Apple are obviously producing some very impressive, game changing technologies these days. But the more I hear and see about the closed world that Apple operates in, the more I’m feeling troubled. I get it, I understand what Uncle Steve is trying to do, and really I don’t think there is any intention to be evil about it. I realise that Apple’s thinking is to produce a platform that just works and is as reliable, stable and functional as possible, and I get that the only way they can truly do that is to control the experience from end to end. When you make the hardware, and the software, and the services and the content… well you get total control over the user experience.  That’s the genius of Apple’s approach. They can give you an elegant, robust, delightful usability experience because every piece is designed to work with every other piece.  It is the reason why I found Linux so damn difficult to use back in the early days, because the environment of Linux was a complete free-for-all, and there was never any guarantee that any hardware or software would play nicely together. It explains why all that early Linux experience was just a painful series of missing drivers, incompatible hardware, a confusing array of software choices, and lots and lots of of frustration.

Having said that, Apple’s approach does bother me a little because it conflicts with my core philosophy of openness and my belief that there should be certain freedoms in what I use and how I work.  Despite the incredibly good user experience that OSX provides, I do sometimes feel the frustration of working within the limitations (or is that the safety?) of the Apple cocoon.  The world grew very sick of Microsoft when it tried to own the entire game. Apple may be working on a much smaller scale than Microsoft was, but it is more aggressive at the same tactic.  Unless they soften their approach a little I’m concerned that here could be a real backlash against Apple as their market share grows.

Overall, I’ll probably stay with my beloved Macs for a while yet since they I still think they are the best overall choice of computing platform.

But back to Linux for a moment. Maybe it’s old news to some people, but I’ve just lately discovered and have become quite impressed with a Linux distribution called Jolicloud.  Jolicloud is a project started by Tariq Krim, the original founder of Netvibes, and is a Ubuntu Linux-based OS made especially for netbook computers.  Jolicloud is completely optimised for netwooks and just goes to show that those underpowered little laptops can actually be useful little computers when they have the right operating system software on them.  I’m running it at the moment on my Lenovo S10 netbook, which until recently was running Windows 7. Jolicloud seems much better suited to the purpose, and runs faster and snappier than 7 did.  The user interface is based on the Netbook Remix Project, but is tweaked in all sorts of added ways for better performance.  I particularly like the “cloud” concept behind it, with the Jolicloud App Directory playing a key role in the overall ease of use. You can browse the App Directory for extra  software (there are hundreds to choose from!) and with a single click they are added to your computer.  All the updates are automatically taken care of through the cloud service too.

The installation was super easy, just download the Jolicloud ISO file, along with a small USB key creator file. Although the ISO took a while to download (it’s about 690MB), once you’ve got it the bootable USB key is made within minutes. Insert it into the netbook, restart and boot from the USB key and the system is installed in less than 15 minutes.  Best of all, every device on the computer works like a charm… sound, screen, network, webcam… everything just worked right out of the box.  I added a few apps (well, ok, over a hundred so far) and it’s turned my netbook from being a device that was easy to carry but painful to use, into a computer that could competently become my regular travel buddy.  There are even two different modes, a Netbook Remix interface, along with a more traditional desktop menu interface.  I think it has great potential. And of course, it’s 100% free.  Free as in beer AND free as in speech.

It’s really shown me just how far Linux has come as a computer for the average person. My mum doesn’t know much about how to use a computer, but I think if she was interested in having one, I would probably give her a Linux based Jolicloud computer in preference to a Windows machine.  She’s probably find it more intuitive, more stable, and overall much easier to use than Windows. And that is a claim that I don’t think I could have made 10, or even 5, years ago.

Linux, you’ve come a long way baby!