Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Why MacOS is not ready for the Desktop yet

After owning my macbook air for roughly half a year and using it daily i feel quite entitled to some sort of small review. At first i was mad at it for behaving in ways i felt "wrong" but I overcame a few of those which were of course just the usual head banging experiences you have because something is different. Still after getting used to the mac way and using it rather extensively I still feel it seriously lacks in certain ways.

It's probably worth pointing out I'm not a "Mac Person". I've only used MacOS for about 6 months where I've used Linux for over four years now and Windows for like 15 years already. To be fair some issues wouldn't exist if you ran MacOS on better hardware but then again that's not a very standard or supported choice so I think it's valid to critize Apple for that. I will also not exclude problems coming from Safari, iTunes and Quicktime, since they're so integrated into the OS that they are essentially a part of it.

Ok. So what's wrong with MacOS that makes it not ready for the desktop? I've tried Leopard and Snow Leopard but will mainly focus on SL since it is the newer one. The issues fall into 5 basic categories stability, simplicity, consistency, size and comfort.

The first issue whose existence i found rather surprising is stability and i actually mean the crashing kind. Before switching to Mac I heard all these stories of a miraculary stable Unix System underlying MacOS. It was somewhat chilling to see how untrue that was. It is a triviality to crash Safari, Opera and Firefox on the Mac. I see at least one crash in these browsers once every two days but that's not all. Since I live on the Internet these are the most noticable nuisances but I managed to crash Quicktime and even the UI server as well. That one time when the UI server restarted every 5 seconds I even had to reinstall despite some rather advanced methods employed in trying to fix it. I have not seen a problem that forced me to reinstall Linux in years and even Windows is getting there. The regular user will not tolerate this sort of hickup and give up although I have used Windows long enough to overlook this until Apple has had more time to produce a stable OS.

The second issue is the lack of simplicity. First of all why do I need to hunt all sorts of packages for my system to achieve functionality that should have been implemented by the OS in the first place like custom keybindings, undervolting, fan monitors, usable keyboard layouts,... The list would go on for quite a while and I'm not even talking about hunting their dependencies. Of course for a few essential (and some not quite so important) pieces of software there is always fink and macports, but then both are still "source based" as in you have to compile all of it because there are no binaries for snow leopard. If I had wanted LSF or Gentoo i would have installed it in the first place. How can apple expect regular users to cope with such an incomplete desktop with no decent installer?

An important obstacle for a regular user is consistency: Of course anybody who learns a new system will feel uncomfortable when her or his old ways stop working and the new ways just seem wrong. This is painful but unavoidable and it was all worth it once you have learned new and better ways (I am not arguing to be as similar to Windows/Linux as possible that would be foolish). The problem is that shortcuts plain don't work the same across all applications. Yes some of the very basic work the same in every application which is very commendable (copy, cut, paste, Preference Dialogue), but a lot of important ones don't like Beginning and End of line, moving wordwise and selecting text in between. On top of that it would be a lot easier to remember differnt ways of working if they followed a philosophy (like all text editing short cuts using the ctrl key) but this isn't consistent either. This is confusing to the regular user and will make them unwilling to relearn their skills and overcome their muscle memory.

The fourth major matter of contention for me is size: Of course it is not as bad as Windows 7 for that matter but still I am struggling to keep my system with just bare functionality under 25 Gb. Getting rid of languages and more importantly code for different architectures is absolutely non-trivial and highly risky business and should not be necessary. MacOS really fails in this area and Apple should try to make amends if they ever want to conquer the regular user segment of the market.

The final major issue is comfort. It is just plain to hard to use comfortably and this encompases a lot of issues. Why does there have to be an update roughly every other week that forces me to restart the computer? Why does Apple make it impossible to swap a few keys or make more custom keyboard shortcuts possible and Yes I am prepared to argue that the default is brain dead. Why can't i reasonably use MacOS with either just mouse/touch pad or keyboard (i could live without mouse but keyboard is essential)? I guess this isn't all that import if you have a macbook but for standard desktop macs without a touchpad close to the keyboard this is just painful. And last but not least, why is there no compatibility for Windows applications and don't tell me about wine it's a very long way from usable even for the more tech savy user.. How is a regular user to switch to mac if all the programs he or she needs are Windows based. This really is more important than most people think. If the regular user is pushed too far out of the regions she knows and expects she will just not follow and instead go back to what they are used to even if it means an inferior OS.

I think of MacOS the way I thought of gimp years ago: a very promising product with a rather limited audience. Apple made a big effort that deserves admiration and MacOS really is a nice product for nerds and enthusiasts but too inconsistent, uncomfortable and idiosyncratic for the regular user. If MacOS is to make major inroads on the regular desktop it will have to receive a lot of polish before that.