I feel rather guilty about taking an unscheduled half-year absence from these pages; it was rather unintentional. But one missed deadline quickly became another, and soon, my third year of college was complete and it was summer. Wow. I guess time flies when you’re… um… studying.
But these last few months have been beneficial for me as a Mac user. Oddly enough, I’ve used the Mac OS less in these last six months than I ever have since my family first bought that original Mac LC when I was in seventh grade. And truthfully, there was a period of time during this half-year when I became rather disillusioned with the Mac OS.
Here’s the situation: in one of my less intelligent moments last March, I left my trusty PowerBook 1400 lying on the floor of my dorm room, and the dongle attached to my ethernet PC Card was stepped on, breaking it, and along with it, my network connectivity and high speed Internet access. Being a little strapped for cash at the time, I couldn’t afford to buy a new card, and I couldn’t find anyone selling spare dongles. So I used my PowerBook for word processing and such, but I got all of my email, web, and network connectivity from my roommate’s PC running Windows 95. On top of that, my school’s computer science department made Red Hat Linux their “official” operating system this past year, and in addition to doing all of my programming and homework in the Linux OS, I also worked for the department as an assistant administrator for their Linux intranet. Last but not least, this summer I am interning in the IT department of a local electrical engineering firm, using Windows 98 and/or NT for 8 hours a day.
Through all of this, I haven’t fallen in love with any of the other operating systems I’ve been using, but I did become a little disenchanted with the Mac OS. Overall, I still find Windows clunky and unfriendly, but at least when a program “performs an illegal operation and must be shut down,” as a Windows dialog box has informed me far too many times this summer, it does not crash the entire system. The computer doesn’t freeze, doesn’t hang, and doesn’t need to be rebooted. And for that matter, anything Windows does in this regard, Linux does even better. I was eyewitness to our Comp Sci file server going 83 days between restarts, and part of my job when the department’s intranet was first being set up was to log on to one of the workstations and TRY to make it crash. I couldn’t do it.
Secondly, I’ve realized that, in some cases, there are quicker, better ways to do things than the Macintosh way. I like being able to hit the eject button on the CD drive when there’s a disc mounted, and be able to eject the disc without dragging it to the trash or choosing a menu command. I like being able to navigate every single menu possible from the keyboard. And, although I may be deemed a heretic for saying this, I like the Linux console. Yes, it is geeky, and yes, it took a good deal of time to learn the ropes, but once I became comfortable using the Linux command line, I rarely used X-Windows to browse files or open applications. It kept my hands on the keyboard, away from the mouse, and everything happening in one little window. It may be arcane, and it may be a step backwards from the GUIs of today, but the command line can be extremely efficient. I suddenly found myself wishing the Mac had one.
Finally, I realized that, as much as I had wanted to believe otherwise, the Mac OS is not the best choice for everyone or in every situation. At the engineering firm I’m interning at, I’ve done my share of database programming (in both SQL and Microsoft’s VBA scripting language) in Access 97 and Access 2000, and the company is thinking of moving to Oracle in the future.
Unfortunately, even though I’m impressed by its capabilities, I don’t think a Mac OS-based FileMaker solution would quite fit their needs. Likewise, Linux is a rock-solid server solution, and allows for easy, powerful remote connections using telnet and ssh. After experiencing the ability to log into any one Linux computer from virtually any computer on campus, regardless of platform or operating system, I became a little green with envy.
I won’t even mention some of the smaller (yet arguably very, very important) things that bugged me, such as Apple’s pathetic Java implementation, absence of cutting-edge graphics hardware, and lack of a standard two-button mouse. I won’t bring up how impressed I was that all of the function keys at the top of the keyboard actually served a purpose in other operating systems, or how they also made liberal and functional use of all of the modifier keys. All of a sudden, I was becoming rather cynical about the operating system that I had used and loved for so many years.
But not to worry, because even as I was opening my eyes to the shortcomings of the Mac OS, I was becoming more familiar with some of the more irritating features of the other platforms. I had the privilege of configuring a printer and print server in Linux, and the joy of setting up a dial-up Internet connection in Windows for the first time. I got to find out just how picky and troublesome Linux life could be if I tried to name files using spaces, inconsistent case, or nonstandard characters. I had the time of my life reinstalling software and repartitioning drives for both Linux and Windows, and even was able to experience a wrecked partition table. On top of it all, I did have to worry about some minor security issues in the Linux network, and actually did have one unruly, unwanted hacker in the system. Little by little, I began to realize that for nearly every little benefit I saw in the other operating systems, there was a disproportionately large headache that outweighed it.
And that was all it took to remind me of all the things I have appreciated about the Mac OS: the consistency of menu items, keyboard commands, and dialog boxes; the attention to detail and simplicity in the user interface; the lack of .dll, .bat, .dat, or .conf files; true plug-and-play that just plain works… the list goes on. Yes, there were many things I could think of that the Mac OS lacked, but there were many more things that it had that I would not want to do without.
Suddenly, the tech geek in me got very excited. Mac OS X is coming! I wasn’t excited about the Aqua interface, the translucent graphics, or the pretty colors. Instead, I was excited for the preemptive multitasking, the protected memory, the modified Mach kernel… all of the geeky buzzwords that the Mac OS has been lacking for so long. Think of it… the power, stability, and technical strength of Unix merged with the user interface, simplicity, and friendliness of the Macintosh. Apple has a chance to create an operating system that can truly be all things to all people, offering everything the power user wants combined with the ease of use the casual user needs. Wow. A tall order, to be sure, but suddenly, the possibility of it became very real to me. If anyone could do it right, it would be Apple.
But I still hope they give me the option of installing a command line.