A Linux user and OS X

It’s tacky I know, and I am very much running behind the herd –so far behind, in fact, that the herd has already jumped the cliff — to write on this topic in the winter of 2003. But I don’t care all that much. I still feel the need… I am going to compare using OS X with using Linux+KDE.

I’ve been using OS X for about half a year now, in its 10.2.7, 10.2.8 and 10.3 incarnations, but I am long-time Linux user — I started using Linux in 1994 or 1993. At that time I considered FVWM to be a more user-friendly¬† and esthetically pleasing alternative to Windows 3.11, and generally
exactly what the doctor ordered.

And I didn’t revise that opinion until I acquired a computer that was powerful enough to run the first version of KDE; that made me leave FVWM. And I am still using KDE, don’t get me wrong, I’m even working on KDE’s paint app, Krita.

But when I got the chance to buy a second-hand Pismo powerbook for a pittance, I thought to kill two birds with one stone; first acquire a powerpc (and thus big-endian) based machine to test Krita on and second, to have access to OS X to port Kura to and to test PyQt.

Honourable and worthy goals, I am sure you will agree with me. However, I must also admit to an ulterior motive. I was getting rather curious after Apple’s NeXTStep based OS that was getting such rave notices from friends and colleagues. GNUStep has long fascinated me (I am still wondering why Miguel de Icaza thought it necessary to start Gnome when the GNU project already was working on a complete desktop environment. I know the GNUStep people deny it, but that’s no use: their applications don’t work at all well unless running inside their own environment.), and I used GNUStep from time to time when I wanted something that was less easy to use than KDE, more constrained, something that forced me to stay in one application
instead of hopping back and forth between work and Usenet.

A dual boot machine

Funny that, I don’t have a single dual boot Intel or AMD machine left. There’s one very, very old Compaq laptop that is too small and old to run anything but MS-Dos and Windows 3.11 on, and one almost equally ancient computer that runs Windows 95, mostly for my tax application — all the other computers, including the children’s computer and my wife’s laptop boot straight into SuSE Linux.

But the Pismo dual-boots Debian GNU/Linux and OS X. Because on the same hardware, OS X is more comfortable than Debian GNU/Linux; but it’s wonderful hardware compared with my previous Gateway laptops. And the suspend is even more wonderful — close the lid, and the computer suspends. Both in Linux and OS X. Try that with your fancy new ACPI Intel boat anchor! But… The Powerbook is still dual-boot. One reason for that is
that I still need to test Kura on OS X, even if it works now, But there is
more. Linux is simply not as comfortable on a Powerbook as OS X. And the reason for that is the trackpad. I can live with only one real mousebutton and two emulated buttons, but I simply cannot work with the jittery, nervous cursor that Debian GNU/Linux gives me on the Powerbook. I don’t know the cause, but whenever I move the cursor someplace, the cursor will make a little dance around and about the place I intended to stop, and then almost, but not quite come to rest in the right spot. With an external mouse
attached, no problems.

The keyboard has its problems, too. I can redefine F12 to Delete — and that helps. But this bugger has got a Dutch-style keyboard, with a narrow, high Return key, instead of the comfy wide Return key of my previous laptops. It’s killing my little finger, I tell you. But that’s not better with OS X.

Other problems with running Debian (or any other Linux system, I imagine) on my powerbook are: Blackdown’s Java won’t work — it quits complaining of an illegal instruction (an older version does work, but neither has an hotspot compiler making both very slow) — and my Lucent Wavelan Turbo Silver pcmcia wifi card crashes the relevant kernel modules. I am afraid it won’t get repaired anytime soon. Don’t get me wrong: I’m quite prepared to
start bug-hunting myself, but I’m already working on Krita, and I’m
not going to spread myself like molten butter all over the tablecloth of development.

So, I’m still using OS X a few hours a day; on the train to my work, on the train back home — that time I use mostly to work on an agent system built in Java, so that’s Java hacking, which needs OS X. And in the evening, whenever I don’t feel like sitting behind the desktop, I take the Pismo to my comfy chair and browse a bit, use X11 to export KMail and KNode to the laptop and read mail and news, write a novel, hack on Fading Memories
— nothing very demanding. Still, the minutes add up, and I clocked up considerable experience with OS X in a variety of tasks. (And Classic, curiously enough. I tried to work on a book of sermons by a very holy Archimandrite who has recently died and whose work I greatly admire, and I thought to use Microsoft Office 98 for it. It crashed and kept crashing, though, so I went back to OpenOffice. Which ate the book in its latest revision. If it weren’t Father Adriaan’s Voorlopers I was editing, I’d have cursed. Oh, and Debian’s OpenOffice is far more beautiful and far more usable than the version for OS X.)

A fair and balanced comparison between Jaguar and KDE 3.1

Using OS X really brought home the enormous advances made on the Linux Desktop front in the last few years. Fonts are one area where XFree now handily beats any opposition. People will rave about OS X’s antialiasing — but the only reason it looks halfway decent is because of the enormous size of the system font. In reality, the glyphs are fuzzy, especially at lower point sizes. Freetype, in contrast, presents a clean, clear, sharp glyph at almost any size, while still smoothing edges and curves.

OS X Rendering a website


Freetype and Konqueror rendering a website

OS X also isn’t as consistent as Apple would like you to believe. One problem is the brushed metal look that is applied willy-nilly to new Apple applications; not only does it look horribly retro, simply too Enlightenment”, it also clashes with the Aqua applications (and the Classic applications that you still can run.) That’s, without mentioning the subtly different Carbon API L&F, three different look & feels on one desktop, which doesn’t compare badly to the three that dominate my Linux desktop: Qt, GTK and Lucid (for XEmacs).

And then, OS X still shows its NeXT roots, for instance in the column-view in the finder and the file dialogs, or the dock itself. It also shows its OS 9 roots in the menubar on top of the screen; but that is a feature that has proven compulsive to me. While there is a KDE kicker applet that sucks up the menubar of KDE apps and shows it in a kicker (which you can place on top of the screen, of course), it is quite buggy, and besides, it doesn’t apply
to apps written in GTK or other toolkits. Otherwise I’d use it.

Pity, then, that Apple has messed up and decided to have the menubar handled by individual applications. This means that if an application hangs, and they do, you cannot access the little blue apple system menu anymore, because it’s handled by the hanging app. And that means that you have to activate another application to start the Force Quit thingy to kill the hanging app.

Another inconsistency comes from the OS 9 heritage: OS X is unix, and uses the forwards slash for its directory separator. OS 9 used a colon, and iTunes shows the colon when it wants to show you a file path; other apps show the slash. I don’t care one way or another, except in as far as I’d like some consistency, and perhaps a basic fidelity to the reality of the underlying system. Wrapping, when not accompanied with a hefty dose of abstraction always leads to complexity that can lead to bugs and errors.

The windowmanager is quite limited, even though the drop shadows are really useful — it did surprise me too, but they do add to a feeling of control and orientation — but not being able to resize the window except by the little lower right-hand corner is a pain. And it isn’t the window manager that decides how to redraw the window during a resize, but again the app. And that makes that some apps, like Camino, suck when you try to resize them.

OS X does look kind of not un-cool — and I admit to having been a heavy user of Mosfet’s Liquid widget style in KDE. But there’s a reason I’m still using Qt’s Platinum (inspired by OS 9, indeed) under KDE. It’s clean, clear, unobtrusive, doesn’t take too many pixels and can take any colour I like. I dislike having only the choice between bright blue and dumb smokey-gray. OS X just isn’t configurable at all, compared to KDE. Configurability is good, after all, I live inside that computer for twelve to sixteen hours a day, and it had better fit me like a glove. I am not prepared to forego the option to adapt software to the way I work in order to make it less confusing for someone else.

Missing, badly missing, is KDE’s minicli — the little commandline window that you open with ALT-F2, and where you can type anything, from a URL to a shell command, and have it executed for you. When using KDE, I never open a web- or filebrowser application; I press ALT-F2 and type an URL or a location. In KDE I am mostly unaware of the existence of the browser; KDE just gives me the view I need to do my work, or the page I want to read. By contrast, in OS X I have to start a browser, navigate to the location field and
enter the URL, or search for the correct bookmark in my list of hundreds of bookmarks. Those things take time.

But missing from KDE is the iLife suite of applications. I don’t use iMovie nor iDvd (and the dvd player insists that I shouldn’t skip the view-safe-don’t-watch-pirated-dvd’s advertorials that remind me so much of fuck-responsibly-use-a-condom campaigns), but iPhoto and iTunes are the slickest, easiest applications I’ve ever seen for managing my collection of holiday snaps and my collection of digitized LP records (now approaching 30 GB). With those applications I actually take the time to add metadata, assign composer, artist and track names to the music, instead of relying on the file-system for categorization. iTunes and iPhoto are compelling enough to keep using OS X, killer applications, in fact.

In general, OS X impresses because it, as countless other people have said before, just works. It may not always do everything I would like it to do, and it may not always allow me to do things the way I would like to do them, and it still crashes sometimes, but whatever I try to do, just works. And that’s simply not true yet of KDE. My daughters’ computer runs SuSE 8.2, and while Rebecca can play flash games from konqueror, Naomi cannot, and Menna now and then. KDE doesn’t include a decent picture manager — Pixie comes close, but isn’t included in KDE itself, being a product of the temparemental Mosfet. And when I make a typo in the minicli and press enter, SuSE 8.2 insists on telling me twice I goofed; as soons as I press ESC to get rid of the first messagebox, the second pops up. And when I’ve got an accidental Word document in a directory, KOffice tries to produce a preview thumbnail for konqueror. That’s nice, and something I’d like OS X to emulate, but when it fails, konqueror won’t show that directory giving me instead lots of error message boxes.

But, well, Jasper Pedersen has released an Iphoto clone, there’s Rhythmbox or Juk that clone iTunes, the KOffice bug is worked out, and my daughters should tell me when there’s something wrong and let me fix it, because I can and will.)

On the other hand, it’s just as easy to mess up OS X as it is to mess up KDE; when I installed a font I’d made years ago in Corel Draw, OS X would barf whenever I called up the font selection box in any Aqua application. Not to mention that time when I noticed a directory called /private that contained files that looked like the personal stuff of the previous owner. I decided to remove that entiry directory, not wanting to pry into Norbert’s private
life. That was a mistake, and I hosed OS X for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last…

Changes between Jaguar and Panther that I do not like

So, there I was, quite happy to have a choice between KDE and OS X, quite happy with either indeed. And then came Panther. Panther, Apple’s latest version of OS X sports a large number of changes — I use the word advisedly, since I don’t think these changes are universally improvements.

Expose is great, or rather, it would be if I had the habit of leaving open many windows on my desktop. But I like to see a bit of my wallpaper (currently a nice photograph I took of the island of Kea), and I hate seeing text that I am not currently working with in the background. So everything that’s not part of the current task gets minimized, and Expose doesn’t show minimized windows. Bummer, as the technical term is, I believe. (And the cmd-tab is still not as clever as KDE’s. And it sucks that the Finder, which I almost never need, insists on worming itself in my cmd-tab sequence. And it sucks that minimized windows are not in the cmd-tab sequence. And I don’t like the way cmd-tab cycles apps, instead of documents. I work with documents, not apps. Hint: cmd-tilde cycles documents/windows in an app.) I like the lack of pinstripes; that’s an improvement for sure, because those stripes were ugly as sin on my separate LCD monitor. But the new tab control — a row of buttons over a
sunk frame — is silly. It no longer shows what the tabs are for. The broken Apple logo on the startup screen is equally ludicrous. The gratuitous redesign of some icons is good for nothing. The ‘improved’ way selected icons are shown has an amateurish look, especially when combined with the silly little seven colors of flags you can give files. Fonts are still not
rendered as crisply as Freetype shows is possible. And I have a hard time figuring out why X11 has moved from /Applications to /Applications/Utils. No doubt the reason was good, but I don’t get it. All these things are just churn, nothing more. And I really despise the tacky metal look; as if we’re back with the Enlightenment window manager.

The really completely unmitigated disaster in Panther is the new Finder. The Jaguar Finder was already a very inferior product to even GNUStep’s (and presumably NeXTStep’s, too) WorkBench, let alone Konqueror. But that version was at least moderately consistent. The new Finder can be shown in either a metal look, and then it looks as if it’s got a browser-like interface, or in an Aqua look, and then it looks as if it tries to imitate the OS 9 Finder.

John Syracusa has argued on Ars Technica in favour of something he calls
the ‘spatial finder’. I am sure I wouldn’t like that either; I don’t want to be given the chance to make the same mess of my computer as I make of my desk. If the computer can clean up after me, keep my stuff in alphabetical (or any other) order then that makes me happy. Very happy. If I open a Finder window on a directory and it shows me only half of the files and a vasty expanse of white because last time I visited that directory I had scrolled down a bit, I nearly get a heart attack because I fear that I have accidentally deleted the files that are no longer visible. No, the browser metaphor that Konqueror presents works very well for me, thank you very much.


I hope my next laptop will be an Apple — I hope, because a 15 inch alubook costs twice as much as a similarly decked out Dell, and my wife needs a new laptop too, so how could I justify shelling out E2700… But the suspend that just works, being able to organize my snapshots with iPhoto, my music with iTunes, while still having all of KDE at my fingertips, that’s very seductive.