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For the last ten years I have mentally divided the computing world into three camps:

  1. The sorry masses of Windows users who don’t realize that happy alternatives exist to their computing purgatory.

  2. The camp of OSX users who enjoy their addiction to beautiful and functional proprietary technologies.

  3. The free and dis-organized Linux users who will conquer the world once some usability issues are resolved.

As a solid member of the third camp, I have frequently suggested to my Windows using associates that their complaints will most easily be resolved by throwing their lot in with Steve Jobs and buying a Macintosh. When family and friends have needed help with computer problems I have stepped in to solve their problems, while reserving the right to complain as long as they use Windows. If they would switch to OSX or Linux I promised to stop complaining. Of course I fully expected my support burden to drop in the process.

Over the past two years five friends have taken me seriously and tried to kick their Windows habits. Three switched to Linux and two bought Macs. My preconceptions have been challenged and my comfortable world view has been shattered. The summary is that OSX let me down. I am mentally reeling from the surreal experience of hearing myself recommend replacing OSX with Windows 7.

Case Study 1:

My mother-in-law needed a computer while hers was in storage. I set her up with an account on my Kubuntu box. For two months she seemed to use OpenOffice and Firefox just fine, and didn’t seem to need much help. However, she felt very uncomfortable with it and switched back to her Windows XP/Microsoft Office machine at the first opportunity. Chalk one up for habit and Windows XP. I expect that she would struggle even more with Windows 7 and Microsoft’s new ribbon UI.

Case Study 2:

About a year ago I helped my neighbor replace his malware infected Windows machine with Linux. I was confident that Linux would be functional for him, but I expected I would need to provide some hand-holding for a while. I was pleasantly surprised that he hasn’t needed more than the initial brief orientation. The other day I asked how he was liking the setup. He said that it is great—he was working on ripping his DVDs so that he doesn’t have to worry about his little brother scratching the disks. He really enjoys being able to download tons of free software from a trusted repository of packages.

Case Study 3:

Two months ago I bought a Dell netbook pre-installed with Linux for my wife. When my sister saw it, she liked it so much that she got one too. I reinstalled the 8.04 Ubuntu that Dell provided with the pre-release Kubuntu 9.10 netbook remix. I think she only uses Open Office Writer, Firefox, and the basic card games. She appears genuinely pleased. She has only had a problem twice, and both times it was easily solved over the phone. Her system was in a weird state, and I coached her through opening a terminal and typing the proper voodoo. It was much easier than talking someone through deleting settings files from XP’s Document and Settings. (I recently tried to delete settings files from Windows 7, and I didn’t even find where they are stored.)

Case Study 4:

My brother needed a new laptop and heeded my advice that he should by a MacBook Pro. I set him up with XP in a VirtualBox so that he could still interact with his customers who are hooked on Microsoft Office. His initial impression was very positive, but over time the different key bindings drove him crazy. He never really understood how to interact with the virtual machine either. Learning the OS appeared to require more energy than he cared to invest, so he gave the Macbook to his sister-in-law and bought a Thinkpad with Windows XP. I didn’t find out for couple of months. Chalk another one up to Windows XP and force of habit.

Case Study 5:

My Dad’s Windows XP installation got a corrupted registry and wouldn’t boot to anything but safe mode. He is definitely a power user, and uses a lot of industry specific applications that only run in Windows. He also feels chained to Microsoft because at work he collaborates heavily with a team standardized on Microsoft tools. Yet his frustration with Microsoft was so great that he bought a beautiful new iMac and VMware Fusion. I explained to him that the next time his machine crashes we can roll back from a snapshot and recover in only a couple of minutes instead of a couple of days.

I wish that I had this laptop reliability study when we bought the iMac. I turned down AppleCare with the logic that the high price of a Mac was due to its superior quality. In a perfect world a manufacturer will build reliable products, rather than require users to purchase expensive service plans to have a positive experience with their brand. How naive—it’s all marketing. Apple machines are not significantly less likely to fail than non-Apple machines.

I have spent more time tinkering with OSX on this machine than I care to admit. My initial impressions were largely positive, but as I actually tried to use the machine I was disappointed. It has a Unix-like feel, yet lacks the configure-ability that I have enjoyed while using Linux. After some more use, I have come to appreciate the fine architecture of OSX. Too bad the machine is a piece of junk.

This iMac has been nothing but trouble.

Timeline

  • Things worked well for a couple of months and I was optimistic that the problems we encountered were due to the adaptation to a new OS.
  • A month after the one-year warranty expired I realized that the problems were probably related to a failing hard drive. Given Apple’s unwillingness to stand behind their product, I replaced the drive myself. I was optimistic that the system would now be reliable.
  • Three months later the machine failed to boot. It was clearly a hardware problem. I was afraid the entire motherboard was fried. As I got price quotes I found that:

    • Apple certified support people are very overpriced.
    • Apple certified support people will not look at a machine in less than three days. APPLE: THIS MACHINE IS USED FOR BUSINESS! (sorry for raising my voice)

    I guess my mistake was treating a Mac like something more than a toy.

    If I am going to be paying a mint for the machine, and a mint for “properly trained” technicians to work on it, how come the empirical evidence does not show a corresponding increase in reliability?

  • The hardware finally seemed stable, but the machine still suffered from weirdness with the keyboard and mouse. We upgraded to Snow Leopard and the weirdness appeared to go away. Except that it actually got worse. The machine is normally reliable, but a couple of times a week it just stops accepting input from the keyboard or mouse. A reboot of the system is required to get things functional again. That is a real productivity killer.

  • Yesterday I did the unthinkable and I recommended that my father install Windows 7 on his iMac because I think it will solve his constant problems (did I really just say that?!?). Dad doesn’t want to give up on the Mac yet, so we tried upgrading VMware Fusion to 3 tonight; he suspects the keyboard was going dead when it would leave the virtual machine. Anything else bad happens and I’m throwing in the towel. I fully expect to be putting Windows on the box before the year’s end.

Side Note:

I helped a co-worked install a development environment on his Windows 7 thinkpad. For a Microsoft OS, I’m impressed. It feels a lot more Unix-y than previous versions. That doesn’t mean I like it. It still has the same problems with a lame terminal, no good utilities, a find that doesn’t search everything, and reliance on code pages for internationalization. Oh, and the poor security model and lameness incarnate that is the registry. On the whole, it’s a step up.

Conclusion:

My conclusion is that Linux is the only viable operating system. Thank goodness for the usability gains the Linux community have made in the last three years.

Current scorecard is: Windows XP—2, Windows 7—1 (tentative), Linux—2, OSX—Zilch.

There is probably still a niche for OSX, but my unscientific anecdotal evidence shows that for common users Ubuntu is a more practical alternative to Windows than OSX. If specialized applications prevent a switch to Linux, using Windows 7 might be better than trying OSX.

Oh Apple, how you have failed me!

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