Think different – Actually, just try thinking all at

I made a decision a few weeks ago to reformat my Mac Mini and, later, my Time Capsule and sell them.

It probably seems strange that eight months ago I was in in full Apple/Steve Jobs fanaticism mode, watching documentaries about Jobs and reading his biography with great enthusiasm. I had my Mac set up more or less the way I wanted it and, following a hernia repair surgery, I had two weeks off work and an abundance of energy due to a bad reaction to the pain management medication I was prescribed.

I took the time to review some of the documentaries I had accumulated in recent months, including three about Steve Jobs. One portrayed him as a genius, a visionary, one who computer enthusiasts owe a great deal to. The other painted him as an unbalanced, obsessive control freak who stole unashamedly from everyone else. The third took sections from each and came to no clear conclusion.

My reading of Jobs’ biography was mostly honest, frequently unflattering and still slightly unhinged; I began to see why so many Christians seem to favour Apple products – there seems an almost religious awe to the way they market their products. There seems to be an appeal to those who aren’t seeking God as such, but someone to tell them how they should live their lives. The public face of Jobs was a most charismatic pastor to the Apple faithful.

When I was still working at The Unnamed Computer Shop, they had finally gained an Apple dealership after several years of unsuccessful applications, though the reasons given for declining were apparently always vague and inconclusive. We had a training session with a representative from our main wholesaler – the session took some time and demonstrated some of the amazing things that the Mac and its software was capable of, but also a clear indication that the Mac was no longer the tool of the free thinking, counter culture artists but now a fashion accessory that you could not live without.

I remember being both impressed and horrified by what I saw. I walked out of the training session and back to my desk suddenly sporting a Van Dyke, beret and a placard proclaiming “Linux power!” At least, that’s how it felt. My inner Socialist was enraged.

It became clear that Apple made use of some very persuasive people – even knowing that Apple was promoted as a lifestyle choice, I managed to get caught up in the hype. I purchased a second hand Mac Mini through the local classified adverts, upgraded the memory to 4GB and spent some time tooling it up until it became my main system for everyday use. My Windows notebook, my primary system for the last six years was relegated to the machine I took with me to LAN parties, programming meetings and when travelling. And yet I was left with a continuous niggling doubt…

One things that struck about Apple is how closed they are – they provide the hardware, the operating system and many of the applications we use. Everything worked together in an impressively seamless and consistent fashion. When comparing with Windows, the latter offers much the same functionality (after a fashion) but everything seemed cobbled together – a collective product by people who had a particular goal in mind but who made no effort to communicate with each other during development. Or sometimes software purchased or licensed from third parties and just dropped into place.

The closed nature of Apple has its benefits but once you try thinking outside of that glass box, you start to run into trouble – like Microsoft, Apple like to keep external developers at arm’s length. Its not that they prevent third party developers, but you will be frowned upon in you don’t follow very specific guidelines. Whilst I found a lot of useful, free tools for everyday general use, some of the software I needed for specific tasks (such as writing DVDs with verification) required some quite expensive software – having purchased this software for Windows, I didn’t want to have to buy it again for the Mac at twice the price.

Whilst I was recovering from surgery in late September and early October, I took some time to tinker again with Linux – my notebook has a rather obscure video controller and few operating systems seem to recognise or support it properly. Various flavours of Linux would operate but I would encounter odd problems like being unable to play streaming video at full screen or the audio stalling, crackling and popping like someone burping underwater. Previously, I had worked with Ubuntu 9.04 which worked pretty well for the most part, improving somewhat under 9.10 but when I upgraded to 10.04, the whole system went to pieces. Fresh installations of successive editions never seemed to work satisfactorily.

Having acquired a three year old Hewlett Packard desktop from a friend, I thought to try again – the same issue of not having the video controller supported properly reoccured, but the issue wasn’t as bad as before; streaming video would sometimes struggle but media systems like VLC could play full screen 720p video without any trouble.

Tweaking, refining and a little bit of research allowed me to get the system up and running to my satisfaction, even to the point of taking over from the Mac as my regular day to day machine. With more memory and something like 12 times the hard disk space, I could keep all my music and photos on the same machine. Features like Ubuntu One cloud storage and the built in backup software make sure that nothing goes astray. WINE had improved enough that Windows specific tools like Irfanview operated perfectly well but if I needed to run some software that demanded something more, I could run a virtual machine loaded with Windows XP for software like iTunes (more for purchasing music than configuring my archaic iPod).

In a way, both my inner Socialist and my outer Christian selves were satisfied with the arrangement. When my brother acquired an old PC from his local technical college, I put Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on it as I felt it would be easier for him to use and safer in his inexperience). Eventually, I want to install it on my parent’s PC as well – I just need to figure out remote desktop access for them should they get into any trouble.

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