OS X, Ubuntu and Other Fun Stuff

Comments have been awfully quiet lately. I’m guilty of talking too much about work-related stuff and not enough about iPhones and Twitter.

My bad. Let’s remedy that.

Rich asked me recently how my move to Ubuntu was going. It’s been almost a month, and he says he has a vested interest in keeping me happy with it. I’m not sure why, but I use this as leverage for tech support, e.g. when I upgraded the Linux kernel, the Cisco VPN client stopped working.

Of course, Rich knew what I didn’t; you have to reinstall the VPN client when you upgrade the kernel. I’m sure this is obvious to some, but not to all, e.g. me and a whole mess of other people. Coincidentally, I had also blown several hours the night before trying to get Avant Window Navigator to work. I wanted to test out some of the sweet visual effects you can use in Linux, specifically the Leopard-like dock, as seen here:

Yes, that’s Ubuntu, not OS X, and there’s a laundry list of steps you can take to customize your Hardy install to look and feel just like Leopard, if you so desire. Pretty cool.

Anyway, turns out my video card won’t do anything cool like that, or at least, I can’t make it do anything cool like that. I came to this realization after about three hours lost. Linux truly is a hobbist O/S, meaning you really have to have the time and desire to make it work. This fits Rich to a tee.

But then Rich dropped a bomb I wasn’t expecting.

He said that after moving to a Mac as his primary machine, he realized how much time he spent on hardware and software troubleshooting in Ubuntu. And here I am thinking he liked all that hacking stuff.

Don’t get me wrong; I like Ubuntu overall, and I know Rich does too. It’s a viable alternative to Windoze, and some stuff just works (a la Mac). But that’s highly hit and miss though because other stuff you may need like video cards, multiple displays, Cisco VPN, etc. works only with a lot of invested effort, if at all.

I can hear the uber-geeks in the Open Source community sniggering that I should stick to Windoze, calling me a n00b, etc. But Rich ain’t a n00b, so to hear him say this surprised me.

All this is interesting in juxtaposition with Mark Shuttleworth‘s keynote at OSCON last week. Shuttleworth, not surprisingly, sees Linux as the O/S of the future, but definitely surprising was his calling out of Apple as the bar for usability and attractiveness that should be the new standard for Linux.

And he’s right, if Linux hopes to emerge out of the hobbist/developer niche into a full-blown consumer alternative.

With OS X, Apple has managed to woo both ends of the user spectrum, including super n00bs who are brand new to computers and hardcore developers who like the combination of power (bash shell) and usability (stuff just works). Even despite Apple’s closed nature, Mac is the O/S and development platform of choice for many web developers who write in open languages like Rails, ironic no?

Both Mac and Linux continue to make headway in overall market share compared to Windows, with Apple nearing 8% and all Linux distros around 0.8%, they will inevitably draw comparisons among this hardcore crowd.

However, if Shuttleworth’s vision is to become reality, Linux needs to get further into the “just works” territory. This should be attainable, considering how large and motivated the Open Source community is. I’d love to see a Linux flavor push Apple and Microsoft in mainstream adoption, like Firefox has.

And of course, Microsoft is a huge wild card; does anyone really think Redmond will sit still while both O/S market share and browser market share drop below continue to decline? Seems unlikely.

So, have you changed your O/S lately? Do you want to, but can’t make the leap? Do you love OS X and Apple, and if so, why? What do you think of Open Source? Can Linux challenge OS X in usability and attractiveness?

Find the comments, you’ll be glad you did.




  1. Really funny that you bring this up. My Leopard install went bad 2 days ago and a reinstall didn't seem to fix it,. so I did a fast download of Ubuntu and ran it off the live CD,. Since everything was backed up I decided to just go ahead and install it on the machine.

    I have been amazed at how good it is. Sure there are loads of stupid things that linux distributions should just standardize (like the dozens of window managers), but things were really easy for me overall.

    I think part of the reason is that I am running it on a MacBookPro, which is a known configuration that Ubuntu seems to have gone out of its way to support well. Pretty much everything, including the function keys “just worked”.

    I was the most blown away when I plugged in my ipod and a media play popped up, downloaded a bunch of codecs and just started playing.

    I am no linux guru by any stretch, but this has been good fun.

    As for AWN, I installed it in all of 15 minutes, but ended up just using the built in Gnome panels.. I like having a few buttons, etc on there.

  2. I switched from Linux to OS X earlier this year. So let me pick up two examples where, on the one hand OS X can learn a lot from Linux how to do UI right, on the other hand, the were reasons for me switching.

    Compiz was rock solid a year ago, it took Apple a year to get Spaces right, and even that pales in comparison to Compiz. (Not to mention Apple got the whole app-centric approach wrong) On the other hand, no more tinkering with X configs, no more randomly crashing X (and with it every open app), no more rebooting before plugging to projector.

    Network Manager lets you manage WiFi, VPN and dial-up (EVDO) from one place. Apple has misplaced these features in different parts of their UI, and didn't even get around to implementing some of the stuff (like WiFi signal strength, OpenVPN support).

    On the other hand, no more rebooting because the WiFi driver gets lost after suspend/resume, or NW decides it can't see it. No more editing dial-up scripts because the EVDO card sometimes gets owner by the wrong device.

  3. What's funny is you refer to a failed reinstall as funny 🙂 Not funny “ha-ha”, but funny “X-Files”.

    Glad to hear you're liking Ubuntu. I'm with Rich on spreading the love. It's a very solid an human, as the tagline says, distro.

    I also have a known configuration, Dell laptop from the 2006 vintage. Pity I have the old Intel video drivers though, so I can't enjoy the eye candy that Compiz and AWN provide.

    Isn't it awesome that even proprietary h/w can be freed though? You managed to dodge the support cost, but it's too bad you had to pay for the s/w.

    Heron doesn't seem to know my iPhone, which makes sense. I plugged it in to charge, and it notified me that it detected a camera. Nothing more or less. Heh.

  4. Wow, I hadn't even thought about Mac's network mess. I guess I was hoping they had cleaned it up in Leopard. I still run Tiger b/c I've reached my Apple budget for the decade.

    I can't run Compiz on my hardware, but even so, I can bork up my xorg.conf just trying to set screen resolution. Plus, it does seem odd that things don't show up or stop working sometimes for no apparent reason, e.g. my panel icons are constantly shuffling.

    And VPN forces me to restart X pretty frequently.

    This is why I keep multiple machines around and current.

  5. Jevon's experience is indicative. Linux, being free, makes it very easy to try it out. Win/OSX doesn't just have to provide value for money, but convince people before hand that it will be worth the money.
    I think OSX has the hardest job. Apple can't ensure that the number or quality of third-party apps will always be better than MS/Linux. It controls the OS, but as it evolves, it may lose appeal and if it doesn't then the opposition is more likely to catch up to it or duplicate it.
    MS have a market share advantage – any 'killer' software has to run on Windows. Something would have to be 'really' big before it could convince enough people to throw away their existing hardware and buy Macs (assuming Apple could provide the hardware). Though if Apple ever start selling an OSX built to run on Dell/Acer… laptops, the whole game changes.

    I've got hardy Ubuntu running on my Acer laptop (purchased in March 2006) and Compiz works great on that. I'd need to be convinced before deciding to pay for another OS, though if I bought a new machine with the OS bundled, I may not switch it to Linux.

  6. Not related, but I wonder what VPN client you are using. If Cisco's, well, that is quite rubbish, it needs reinstallation for every kernel update. I'd strongly suggest vpnc, which is very well integrated with NetworkManager, and it never crashes. It's in the main repository.

  7. You're not the first to suggest vpnc, but alas, I can't use that because we do, in fact, use Cisco VPN.

    So, I do have to reinstall it every time I do a kernel update. Bummer.

  8. Good points. The argument is a bit different for personal vs. business users, which (duh) is where OS X has made the most headway. Personal users are more likely to use what's provided and not have s/w requirements.

    So, again we launch into the what's best for enterprise discussion. Personally, I think OS X and Linux are good enough to compete with Microsoft, but there will always be room for multiple O/S flavors.

    Further adding to the argument that VMs rule and everyone should have multiple O/S installed, if only to see what could be. If everyone used each flavor (one Linux distro for the sake of debate), we'd pull out what we liked and disliked and push our primary/favorite O/S to do better, also pushing the others to do better.

    Competition is good.

    I wish my Dell from 2006 would run Compiz. The Intel drivers don't want to cooperate.

  9. Weird. We use Ciscos as well, and the Cisco clients are recommended too. But with the proper configuration files, I have been using vpnc to connect to the Cisco VPN server with no problem. I wonder why can't you…

  10. One advantage Apple have over Windows and Linux is they only have to worry about a small amount of hardware drivers. If they started to sell OS X for install on all x86 & x86-64 kit they would have to write thousands of drivers. The biggest gripe I have with Linux (even Ubuntu) is the limited number of divers.

    I've switched between Linux and Windows several times on my laptop. A few days ago I switched back to Vista. I don't like it, but it does more of the things I need, with less hassle.

    I switched from CentOS5 to Ubuntu on my PC. I'm coming to the end of my love affair with Ubuntu. I think I'm going to switch back to CentOS5. It's more solid and that machine is more of a server, so it's a better match.

    As I've said before, stick to VMs and your transitions between OSes are very easy. 🙂



  11. That hardware advantage is huge.

    I use OS X, Windows and Ubuntu and I find that I spend similar amounts of time tweaking Windows & Ubuntu but none on OS X. Apple's hardware restrictions mean that I buy far fewer hardware upgrades so that has a big effect.

    That said, I've found that any Windows install seems to “rot” over time. Taking longer to boot, using more and more memory and gaining conflicting DLLs. This just doesn't happen with Ubuntu.

  12. Hmm interesting that you cannot get your Intel gfx card to run Compiz. I have an old Fujitsu Siemens laptop from 2006 and I have no problems with the Intel hardware inside. I also have Compiz and AWN running on an old nVidia GeForce MX 4 with no issues to. What is the Intel hardware inside your Dell?

    I hope to one day purchase an Apple Mac, I kinda like the idea of the Mini or maybe the entry level MacBook, but I agree with Mr Shuttleworth that the Linux community should be emulating Apple's approach rather than Redmond's.

  13. That is weird and indicative of the Linux experience. Rich said we couldn't use vpnc; someone suggested it on one of my series of posts about my XP-Ubuntu move in early July. Rich ran Ubuntu for a long time, so I figure he tried to make it work.

  14. Funny “does more of the things I need, with less hassle” sums up nicely, with the emphasis on hassle. I've only run Vista a bit on a VM, but it seemed very heavy, as do all Windows O/S compared to Linux and Mac. Still no VPN issues, dual monitors worked mostly fine, etc.

    Good point about h/w, supporting more kinds does mean exponentially more driver work.

    After the latest move, I'm trying to stay more cloud/backup/VM centric to ensure that I can lose the box and still be fine.

  15. The rotting over time is exactly why I finally bit the bullet and moved to Ubuntu. At a certain point, you can't get back to the performance you had initially, even with a defrag.

    My Dell is way faster running VMs on Ubuntu than it was running them on XP.

  16. I thought so too, since it's not like the laptop is ancient. I have Intel 945GM inside the Dell. I trolled around the Intertubes and tried some stuff recommended on the Compiz wiki and a few other places. No dice. Oh well, it was only eye candy.

    A friend of mine is planning to buy a new Mini and hook it to his 1080p 50″ LCD TV as a monitor. Should be awesome. I'm very happy with my 2nd generation Macbook, the white one. I upgraded the memory aftermarket, paying a quarter of what they wanted installed by Apple. It does everything I need, with a few exceptions.

  17. I'm not saying Vista is the better choice of Windows. XP is leaner, faster and a bit neater. It's just I have a proper license for Vista on that laptop, and I'm not into breaking the law these days. 🙂



  18. actually – vpnc can connect to Cisco VPN. Out of the box it won't work with Oracle's VPN, since the support for certificates is turned off, but I understand that if you build from source and turn on certificate support it works fine with Oracle's VPN. I plan on trying it sometime soon – I'll let you know if it works.

  19. I spent considerable time trying to get vpnc to work on Oracle's Cisco VPN concentrators without luck. First of all, the vpnc that Ubuntu has in its repo wasn't compiled with SSL support. So, I had to compile from source… and even after that, I couldn't get it to work with Oracle's certs/encryption. I'd love to see if anyone at Oracle has actually gotten it to work.

  20. I'd love to see if you can get this to work. I spent many hours trying to get this to work by installing from source and applying Oracle's certs to no avail. I think it had something to do with a failed hybrid implementation… please post a comment if you get it to work.

  21. We are quickly becoming the go-to resource for geeking out at Oracle, not that that's a bad thing, just funny ha-ha.

  22. I think my experience has somewhat mirrored Rich's — I've used linux since the bad-old-days of kernel 0.9.x on a 386, and I must admit that when I moved to a macbook pro for my personal machine – I didn't miss *at all* the mucking around with config files, and recompiling kernel modules I had to do on linux.

    That being said, it is true that Ubuntu is getting closer and closer to the point where you don't need to mess about too much. but it still has a long way to go.

    Just one small example – external monitors. I can plug my mbp into an external monitor, and after a moment my desktop automatically grows to include the new monitor, and I can continue working. it almost always guesses the right resolution, and it's easy to tell it the orientation, and it remembers the orientation and resolution if I connect to a similar monitor later.

    With Linux (Ubuntu 7.10 at least), the only approach I've found that works is to edit the Xorg.conf file to have configurations and layouts for all my monitors – and then I have to kill my X session and start a new X session manually with the correct layout. Not my idea of 'usable'.

  23. Exactly my top problem now. I had XP working on a dual monitor setup, but Ubuntu has no idea how to make that work. I had to start fresh with a new xorg.conf b/c it got so borked.

    Even now, it's a bit cranky about changing resolutions.

    OS X, no problems at all with the laptop screen plus a monitor, even better than XP, which always reset itself when I rebooted, probably a DVI/VGA thing.

    So, some things are very frustrating, while others just work. I hadn't used Linux since Red Hat in 99 so this was a huge improvement for me. I love Ubuntu.

  24. well – if you find a solution to the multiple monitor thing – definitely let me know. I've heard that the Xorg people are making strides in that direction – but I don't think they've solved the problem yet…

  25. Will do and vice versa. Another plus for Linux, frequent updates to the core features and more major releases. So, problems tend to resolve more quickly than with packaged for profit O/S.

  26. I don't know about that. I used Fedora, you Kernel and core updates almost every week, much faster than Windows or OS X.

    But then some updates would break sound, or resume (other updates would break suspend), or the fn keys would stop working, something would go wrong and only get fixed a few releases later.

    So while things get fixed really quick, they also get broken again (and again) that overall I think I was worse off than waiting longer on a non-regressing release cycle.

  27. Hmm, well, I've not been using long enough to comment, but so far, things seem pretty stable (knocking on wood), even after several updates.

    Overall, I like the shorter release cycle for core stuff. You can also build a system and keep it the same forever, no annoying critical update warnings. XP and OS X seem to have a lot of those, and you always wonder how important they really are.

  28. I do have to say in all fairness that I wasn't using a Dell or a ThinkPad, and judging by my coworkers, life is easier if you stick with the popular models.

    Stuff that has worked for a while (i.e. for older models, I have a couple at home delegate to server) never broke. It's only recent models I had problem with, and with the less common or recently introduced components.

    Suspend/resume was on again, off again, on again, off again, probably because the new Intel chipset. So while the cycles were very quick, over the course of a year you get the same down time as Vista.

    It was definitely worse than OS X, which just works, but Apple doesn't give you much of choice in hardware, and I did exercise that right when picking a PC to run Linux.

  29. Rich and I have proven that even w/the same hardware, you can't always assume everything works the same, e.g. Compiz.

    Of course, that's possibly a user error thing on my part too.

  30. The problem with PC's is that the “same hardware” isn't. My laptop is a dell d410, and when I was offered it through work, I checked the linux hardware compatibility pages, and it was listed as having a fully supported wireless chipset (Don't remember if it was intel or atheros).

    When I got mine however, it had a broadcom chipset, so I had months of futzing with it before I could get wireless working reliably. Fortunately Broadcom support has improved a lot since then.

    The problem is that unless you roll your own hardware, you generally have no idea what mobo, chipset, video, etc you are going to get if you go with a big name box…

    IMO that's one of the advantages of Apple – they don't just shove whatever's cheapest that week in the box, you get very consistent hardware from machine to machine…

  31. Very true, and with Apple, you don't have to inspect the BIOS to get the real story about what's under the hood.

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