Wall Writings – My Mac Magazine #55, Nov. ’99

NT and Linux Are Both Knocking. Will Apple Answer?

I’ve had a great opportunity this school year to help administrate one of the computer labs on campus. The lab is pretty small–about a dozen computers total–and has a mix of Windows NT and Red Hat Linux operating systems. After about three months on the job, I’ve come to one conclusion, which ties in nicely with the time of the year:

I’m more thankful than ever that I use a Mac.

Now I Hate Windows AND Have a Better Understanding Why
Windows NT is an even more complex cousin to Windows 95/98, and of course, in Microsoft-speak, more complexity means more possibilities for things to go wrong. In hindsight, I wish I would have begun making a tally at the beginning of the year of how many days all of the NT-based computers in the lab were up and running at the same time. I seriously doubt I would run out of fingers. Granted, not all of the problems have been NT-specific; there’s been a motherboard go bad, a video card go bad, and other hardware-specific problems that can’t honestly be blamed on Microsoft. But the number of times that there have been problems whose easiest solution seemed to be “wipe the hard drive clean and reinstall everything” has still been insanely high.

I’ve also been asked to do some troubleshooting and setup for students who bring their computers in to Computing Services offices. Most of the incidents I’ve handled have involved hooking students up to the campus network. I’ve had to install PCI-, ISA-, and PCMCIA-based Ethernet cards, as well as the Novell Netware networking client, and properly configure system settings. This experience has taught me that, regardless of what they claim, the PC industry does not know what the term “plug-and-play” means. I do chalk a lot of my initial problems up to my own inexperience working with PCs, but nevertheless, the steps required are insane when compared to how easy it is to install hardware and drivers on the Macintosh. You don’t just install the card, install the drivers, restart, and go; you install the card, add the hardware profile, add the networking protocol, add the networking client, reboot, and pray. This usually involves about three different disks, and occasionally multiple reboots. Even on the occasion that it all works right away, the process is unnecessarily complex: right-clicking on the network neighborhood icon, navigating through the proper tabbed windows, and wading through a series of dialog boxes asking such things as “which disk is the proper driver on? Please tell me because I can’t find it on my own.” To be fair, after a while you get used to the process, and you don’t always find yourself wanting to pull your hair out. But every time I need to do something on a Windows computer, I find myself wishing I was working with a Macintosh instead.

Linux Is Really Good, But It’s Still Really Geeky
Of course, it’s not just Mac users who are fed up with Microsoft. Plenty of PC users are making the switch to running Linux on their computers. Even my computer science professors got the dreaded blue screen one too many times over the summer and made the switch to running the Red Hat distribution of Linux. They encourage computer science majors to use Linux, too, or at the very least be acquainted with it. While the department still maintains several Windows NT computers, it has totally moved away from Windows 95/98. (Too bad the entire campus can’t be convinced to do the same! 😉

Working so closely with Linux recently has caused me to appreciate its power and features, and acknowledge that it has several temporary advantages over the Mac OS. If an application crashes, that’s the only thing that crashes–just the application, not the entire system. I have never experienced a forced restart of Linux, unless I have chosen to restart manually. Linux doesn’t freeze, doesn’t hang, doesn’t crash–and I spent a whole week setting up the lab before school started trying to make it crash! I’ve had application conflicts, numerous application crashes, core dumps, and so forth, but never anything that hung the entire system. Linux also features protected memory, better virtual memory, multiuser support, and other enhancements that make it an attractive alternative OS. In fact, one of my professors directly told me that the reason he didn’t even consider Mac OS when switching to Linux was because of its lack of many of these features. He appreciated–and was impressed by–Apple’s new hardware offerings, but felt that Apple needed a most robust “modern” operating system before it could be a true contender in business, higher education, or other networked environments.

Even though Linux offers many features the Mac OS doesn’t, it does lack Apple’s traditional trump card: ease of use. For the end user, Linux has made great strides in adding a graphical interface to its UNIX-rooted command line; desktop managers such as Gnome and KDE imitate the Mac/Windows desktop metaphor fairly well. However, setting up necessary system functions such as printing, dial-up Internet access, and mounting drives is still a complicated process. I won’t even get into the problems I’ve run into as an administrator; once everything is up and running, Linux is great, but getting it to that point can truly be a daunting task. Dozens upon dozens of .ini and .config files almost make Windows’ .dll and .bat files seem friendly! Another problem Linux users face is that few peripheral companies directly support Linux as an operating system (although more are starting to do so). This means that you have to rely on hacked drivers or patches to get some devices to work, and are still limited to what types and brands of devices you can use.

The bottom line? Linux is a good PC alternative to Microsoft-branded operating systems. If you are computer-geeky… er, I mean technically oriented enough, aren’t afraid to play around with potentially dangerous system settings, and have the time and patience to set it up properly, Linux can be an outstanding, powerful OS. The same is true if you are just a regular user but have a system administrator or knowledgeable friend to help you out. But, despite all of its robust features and capabilities, it will be a while before Linux makes it as an everyday operating system; I would never recommend it to an average home user unless I wanted to scare them.

Apple’s Golden Opportunity
This situation puts Apple in a prime position to deliver another industry-changing product: Mac OS X. Many “power” users prefer Linux because of, among other things, its memory management, crash protection, command prompt, and multi-user capabilities. But, it can be hard to configure and get running. Mac users love their OS’s ease of use and simplicity, which is combined with a good deal of power, but it lacks the advanced features of a so-called “modern” operating system like Linux. If Apple can successfully combine the two, it could cause everyone–Mac and PC users alike–to “think different.”

I just hope Apple doesn’t drop the ball here. They must maintain their stellar interface to have a truly easy-to-use product, and they have shown signs of abandoning this, even in the regular Mac OS. Many people have complained about the lack of intuitiveness in the QuickTime 4 Player, but that interface seems to continue to spread throughout the Mac OS, such as in Mac OS 9’s Sherlock 2. Also, there have been several reports of a more NeXT-like file browser system in Mac OS X, which seems to be either a love-it-or-hate-it feature. I truly hope Apple comes back to its roots in terms of graphical interface design, or else the multitude of enhancements and features that Mac OS X promises may end up seeming like a powerful, revved-up engine inside a car without a good steering wheel.

I’ve seen firsthand the problems associated with Windows NT and Linux, and I know that there are plenty of people who WANT a killer operating system with a good interface to come out of Cupertino and give them a true alternative. Here’s your chance, Apple, make good with it!

Mike Wallinga

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