Apple Finally Catches Up With Linux

Back in 2009, when I upgraded my Mac to OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard”, I wrote a post wondering why the company persisted in shipping physical disks. Well, it seems someone was listening. According to Appleinsider the next upgrade to Mac OS X, 10.7 “Lion” (coming in the summer), will be downloaded from the Mac app store, bringing it in line with the excellent Linux way of doing things. That makes a lot of sense. I’m going to miss those beautifully packaged upgrade disks, but there doesn’t seem much point in having them any more. Just to balance out the self-congratulatory tone of this post, I admit that my prediction that 10.7 would be called “Hepcat” was way off the mark.

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Snow Leopard: Why Ship a Physical Disk?

The ‘I upgraded to Snow Leopard’ stories are coming thick and fast and for the record this is mine. Here are the facts: It took about 55 minutes and there were two reboots, one half way through and one at the end. That’s it. This was a very easy upgrade with no human intervention beyond a couple of clicks to get it started. Since I have a Time Machine backup and keep my work in progress in on a synced Dropbox volume I didn’t worry about a clean install. It just wasn’t necessary.

Snow Leopard seems fine, but what I don’t understand is why I had to wait for the postman to deliver a CD. Why doesn’t Apple deliver OS upgrades like this using iTunes or even the regular Software Update tool? Most Linux systems deliver major upgrades that way using package management tools such as Synaptic and it works very well. The Ubuntu desktop I’m using to type this has had two Snow Leopard-equivalent upgrades now, both delivered in the same way as regular bugfixes and security updates, through Synaptic. If Apple has now caught up with Linux and Mac users no longer need to do clean installs it seems crazy for Apple to keep shipping actual physical media. We don’t buy iPhone OS upgrades on a disk after all.

Incidentally since I was installing Snow Leopard on my Mac I took the opportunity to upgrade my wife’s iBook G4 to Leopard. I kept the old Tiger install disk handy in case performance was poor, but actually this six year-old machine runs very well. Of course it will never be able to run Snow Leopard, but it will at least continue to receive updates until Mac OS X 10.7 “Hepcat” renders 10.5 obsolete. By then it will be around nine years old. She’ll have to manage with only 12GB of free disk space though.

My Day with Ubuntu 8.10

Last week my daughter had to take a day off school because she was unwell and it fell to me to babysit during the day. She slept a lot of the time and behaved well for the rest so although it wasn’t quite the most productive day of the week, I don’t think my output suffered too much. This is one of the great benefits of working from home. With a bit of understanding on both sides, minor changes of plan like this can be worked around. But even so, with a sick child propped up on the sofa, normal shedworking activities had to relocate to the house and that meant using the family PC, which runs Ubuntu Linux.

My usual shed-based computer arrangement involves a Macbook with external keyboard and mouse and a second screen. I use a notebook computer so that I don’t have to leave valuable equipment in the shed and I love the two-screen setup which, as many people seem to agree, boosts productivity no end. Having said that though, most of the computing around here is set up to maximise working cross-platform and I find a combination of Mac OS X and Linux, with Windows relegated to a virtual machine for occasional website testing in IE7, is the best combination.

I am not new to Linux. I first began using it to get work done in 2002 after a series of grim experiences with Windows ME while working in Berkeley, California. That sounds more glamorous than it was. While my wife researched her book at the Bancroft Library I carried on with an editing job I started back home. By about half way through the trip Windows ME was locking up on me roughly every hour so in order to keep from losing work I was saving everything and rebooting the laptop every 50 minutes. Back home in Lancashire that autumn I installed a paid-for version of SUSE Linux. I had never used Linux before and it didn’t go entirely without a hitch, but six months later I was using Linux full-time.

Back in 2003, to be fair, I didn’t make great demands on my computers. I used email, a web browser, and a word processor, so even on a laptop, once I’d persuaded Linux to connect to the (dial-up) Internet I had everything I needed and it never crashed. Not crashing was a benefit for which I was prepared to go without proper suspend and sleep capability, though neither of those worked reliably with Windows anyway, and for which I was prepared to buy a separate Hayes modem. I later bought a wireless networking card that was more expensive than it might have been had I been able to pick the cheapest Windows-only model on the shelf.

By the time that old HP laptop began to show its age, in 2004, there was no way I was going back to Windows and no way I was paying for a copy of Windows XP that I would never use. Since I had to have a laptop, that meant buying a Mac, which I did in 2005. The home PC though, which is mostly used for kids’ games in Childsplay and GCompris, watching DVDs, managing photos, and listening to music and podcasts, runs Linux.

And that brings me to my day last week with Ubuntu 8.10. You know what? There’s nothing much to say about it; it just let me get on with what I wanted to do with no drama and no trouble. I worked on an article I’ve been writing for a forthcoming Blackwell anthology, I wrote a blog post or two and tweaked a little css, I made some plans for future articles and replied to a whole bunch of emails. And when I needed to scan and edit an image I just stuck it in the networked HP all-in-one, opened Gimp and captured the image. I could then print the edited image back to the same device. All of this, I should add, just installed right from the disk the week before and worked straight away.

In essence of course, what I have is a computer pre-installed with Ubuntu. It happens that I pre-installed it myself, but it is set up so I could sit down in front of it and go to work. But in fact the amount of setup was minimal and required no command line work at all. Linux has certainly come a long way since 2002. What I found most pleasing is just how usable and straightforward Ubuntu is. Everything is in a logical place and the workflows–scan image, edit image, print/upload image for example–are clear and simple. There’s no doubt in my mind that Ubuntu offers a credible alternative to Windows and Mac OS X and is more than capable of co-existing with both of them.