Ubuntu vs. Mac

An article, posted almost 14 years ago filed in design, usability, interaction, mac, applications, future, os, ubuntu & windows.

Preamble: This post was lying in my Google Docs account for almost a year. Its time to publish it, because it may soon be obsolete. The traditional OS, that focused on managing files on a disk is disappearing. Mac OS X and Ubuntu are becoming old generation OS'es if they don't adapt to the task focussed applications we see today.

To the Dutch readers: Anders dan mijn laatste posts, een Engelstalige... deze lag al een tijdje op de planken en was geschreven in een periode dat ik nog twijfelde of ik nu in het Nederlands of het Engels zou moeten bloggen ;)

I'm not the average Joe. I've studied Interaction design, and a graduate in Human-Computer Interaction (about the same as interaction designer, but with an extended theoretical foundation :) ). I'm interested in what is going on in the software world, and somewhat of an open source enthusiast, am even able to edit configuration files to some extent, not afraid of searching inaccessible fora and newsgroups to find solutions to problems I face... so maybe I'm kind of biased... but still... Ubuntu, a package that enables you to operate your system (i.e. an operating system), may be on its way to offer the next poor man's mac. Its cost is not like Windows (>€75), or Mac OS (~€100), but absolutely free (€0,00).

To those who are interested in great usability design, the Mac platform is often heralded as an example of good user experience design. And good design translates in more than having screenshots published in books about user interfaces. Usability has three standardized pillars: efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction. An often heard response of Mac fanatics to questions like 'Wasn't it expensive?' may quite probably get you in a discussion related to increased productivity, the efficiency and effectiveness of the system  (or simply because they preferred the looks ;) (satisfaction)). If you get paid, the hours you're working are expensive. The price of hardware, negligible. I like the Mac OS, and I prefer an easy system over a hard to use one. But on the other hand, I also sympathize with the open source movement. So when Price isn't really a factor, or at least a negligible one, the question really becomes: "Can an open-source operating system, like Ubuntu, make me as, or better more, productive than a Mac?" That's the question that counts in the end. Computers are tools, and tools should in the first place improve productivity.

So is Ubuntu as, or even more, productive than a Mac? Well, much here depends on what you call productivity. There is not much you need any more after you've installed Ubuntu. You can not only start playing music directly, surf the web, or check your e-mail... it also includes a full featured office suite is available by default (no 30-day trials or whatsoever) and a photo editing package.

But features is not all what Mac's are about. Macs are Simple (note the capital S). You get drag and drop on almost anything, and, with the right devices, you get your contacts synced in no-time. With the right MP3 player you've got a no effort copying an moving of files. With the right video content, playing videos is easy. Note the use clause 'with the right devices'. The problem is that simplicity, and (well I guess the) commercial interests, are not always compatible (neither is open source and patents, more on that a bit later). It took me hours of searching and editing, well mainly replacing, all kinds of profile files to get my Mother's telephone (an affordable Nokia telephone with Bluetooth support) to sync with their good-when-it-works iSync. But in the end it did, and it worked as advertised. My parents don't use an MP3 player... but I don't see how the copy protected music files of iTunes, a great player, would sync with, let's say, a Microsoft Zune. So simplicity not only has its price in hardware (though I must admit, which is just the price you pay for quality), it also comes with restrictions. The same goes for there great .mac service... And although limiting choices for users is not bad by default, limiting access to better alternatives is. And I do believe that you give up much of the mac experience if you replace iTunes by some alternative player. The defaults of MacOS X are so well chosen, but for some reason, the tools are limiting in not an user-interface related way. Music formats, for example, should be ubiquitous. You have AAC (or MP4 audio), MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC, I don't like to care about it. Same for video: QuickTime and AVI are the most popular containers, but within these containers you'll be able to find an enormous load of codecs. Users shouldn't have to worry about these things. The software should just play them all.

So does Ubuntu do these things better? Well, not really. First of all you should simply forget about syncing. At least native syncing. There are thousands of users around there on the web looking for a great syncing application, but still haven't managed to get it work really well with Ubuntu, or Linux in general (really well is as in, hey, I change something, press sync (or just connect), and everything is in sync again). I resorted to using a web based application for calendering, and contacts I update every now and then manually in my pc, and by using a few conversion steps I can copy my PC contacts back to my telephone... Big win here for the Mac. Which might even earn itself back just for the time saved by not having to think about syncing.

Second, not all video formats are supported by default (even support for MP3 is lacking due to license restrictions), but to get it work is mainly a matter of being connected to the internet, and trying to play the file. Most so called codecs (that tell the player how to interpret the data), are downloaded and installed automatically on request. Still, I'm not sure my grandmother would be able to figure out how to select an appropriate codec when presented with a dialogue with several alternative decoders for a certain file format.

But as far as simplicity is concerned, Ubuntu has come a long way. I think partly because of the minimalistic GNOME desktop environment, which is clean by default, but also because the creators of the Ubuntu system have made quite sensible defaults... which is also one of the reasons to praise the Mac OS creators for. And far unlike the creators of W... Even drag and drop works quite well between applications.

There is still a lot lacking in Ubuntu. But much of that is worked on. It takes however time to develop (and since this still holds a year or so after the initial draft of this post, its taking quite some time). Still, I am afraid that the commercial interests of Apple might conflict too much with my own demands (criticical note to myself now I'm rereading this: thinking of what exactly? Of wanting to play OGG files, want to do some unix magic that allows for sharing documents between accounts, experiment with meta-data based file-systems I shouldn't spend so much time on?). Should I give up on these? Basically I want my system to be open to everything. Online storage should be like a hard-drive, but I shouldn't be limited to a .mac hard-drive. That's also simplicity to me, being able to use anything to get stuff done I want to get done. In Linux you can mount much of what is storage as a drive. If I want to play my Ogg Vorbis encoded files, I don't want to get limited functionality when I try install a plugin (in iTunes, tagging is (might be was) of ogg is quite hard).

I am wary of repeating mistakes made in the past. So called vendor lock-ins (use only stuff made by company X, otherwise it won't work) are far from easy to understand for a layman. It may all work so nicely together, but some day things change. Other things get better, and you want to switch. Ubuntu, being open source puts nothing in the way of switching systems. Everything is open, everything can be understood.

Linux, and thus Ubuntu, embrace extendibility, change, flexibility. Since technology changes, our demands changes... well everything changes... in the long run, the simplest solution will be to move to an more open platform. Although in the past using such open platform was much like building your own house from scratch (something you could only do when you're a specialist), Ubuntu is like a house built for you, but allowing you to make modifications wherever you want to (either with, or without, help of a specialist). Going along with this analogy, Windows is like a house built for you, but you still need to tweak a lot, and if you tweak it the wrong way it will soon collapse like a house of cards, and Mac, is something in between. You may change the doors, but watch out when touching anything in the wiring (which is well done, so most of the time you won't even need to).

If you're looking for the best house at the market now, go with Mac. It's top notch. But, if you don't want to get locked up, you might want to give a system like Ubuntu a try. (I'd like to add, just don't consider Windows, not even Vista, it is no contestant by no means. It has poor integration between its own systems, it behaves awkward and it is built around a long history of vendor lock ins) In the longer run, I think that Ubuntu, or some other open source OS, will allow you to pick up the latest developments gradually, without moving houses (which has always the risk of cabinets that don't fit any more). But maybe there is a different lesson to be learnt here: always make sure your cabinets fit every house: be conservative in embracing lock-ins, in other words. Save your data in open standards.

Next... soon to follow: Why I stopped loving OpenOffice.org ...


Jure Cuhalev started this discussion:

For me the best combination at the moment is OS X as main system, where I can run OmniGraffle Pro for wireframing and other industry specific UX apps and Ubuntu in vmware so I can run development versions of php/python webpages and databases.

Virtualization is probably the only way to go for a professional in this area. You have to be able to go out and study Office 2010 and Windows 7 if you're end users are used to that. Being stuck too long in one world isn't good.

Reply from Maarten Brouwers: Looking around is one of the primary reasons I'm interested in alternative Operating Systems in the first place.

But, while I agree that one has to look around, I'm not so much interested in the interface details.

The main point of this post, however, was that an operating system should never, ever, stand in the way of effective, efficient task performance. Not when one is performing a task, not when one is trying to return to a task, not when one wants to look back at work done some, say years, time ago.

And regarding UX tools... I hardly use anything else than pen, paper, and html, although, please forgive me, sometimes a bit of inkscape :o

Well, and Windows 7: I found it much of the same mess as earlier Windows versions... only after installing much of the Microsoft(!) Live Essential software I could find it reasonably usable... but it took quite some time to configure. Not something an inexperienced user can do (and I take great pleasure in looking at how inexperienced users work with software). There seem to be people working at MS who really know what they are doing, but the overall execution is often messy. Maarten Brouwers

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