Complexity is Too Expensive

I've read the blog posts about various people switching from one OS to another and what it means for each OS, but I just keep coming back to the simple conclusion: I'm not interested in switching to something that's more complicated and less polished than what I use now. I'm not looking for new ways to spend time staring at a screen in frustration.

I respect the fact that somebody would feel strongly enough about open source software to use Linux at least partially on principle rather than purely on how it works. I just can't do that, though. At the end of the day, the reason I spend any time on this blog is that Macs and Cocoa usually leave you with more free time than the alternatives, and help you to better enjoy actual work time.

On paper, open source software does theoretically let you do whatever you want with your software (including not pay anyone for it), but what if all you want is for the thing to work right out of the box? A liberal software license doesn't help me at all when I can't get the OS or app to work properly. I'm not willing to drop everything I'm doing and download an entire tree and dig into layers of C/C++ source.

Of course, sometimes the open source package works better, in which case I'm more than happy to use it.

Snap Out of It. We're Human.

Hard core geek opinion about Apple has sort of ebbed and flowed over time, but I think the persistent swell of support we've seen in the last few years is due to a large-scale awakening to the idea that things really should just work right. Odd for that to sound like an epiphany, isn't it?

There's nothing wrong with things looking nice either. It doesn't have to increase productivity to be worthwhile. We're humans, not robots.

The reason I can't get too worked up about Mark Pilgrim switching to Linux is that it's just not reasoning I can relate to. There's nothing he needs to be convinced of and I don't think his decision even reflects poorly on Mac OS X.

The shock of a Mac user switching to Linux is that people don't usually switch to something that's less hospitable. It doesn't a make a lot of sense until you find out that Mark prefers Firefox, VLC and Emacs to Safari, QuickTime and any GUI editor. This frames the situation differently.

I don't know it to be a fact, but I assume Mark is willing to compromise on usability, aesthetics and overall polish in the name of having source code for his software. Part of his reasoning is that he's willing to accept some hassle now to avoid possible hassle later. My brain doesn't work this way.

Who's In the Majority?

Is this part of a trend? Only if you believe most Mac OS X users would be willing to accept more complication and less polish. If that was the case, they'd probably be using Windows. Although Mark has a history with the Mac, he really isn't the type of person Apple is making computers for today.

There is some overlap between Mac OS X and Linux, but Apple's portion is the sort of user that cares about unix, but is interested in a better experience and polished desktop apps. This is the category I fit into.

I want to spend less time at my computer. More specifically, I want every minute that I'm staring at the screen to count for something. I don't want to troubleshoot, configure, hack or otherwise spend time on things that don't involve the actual task I want to complete.

Yes, Mark Pilgrim may find that using open source apps will somehow give him access to data twenty-five or fifty years in the future that he wouldn't otherwise have, but I doubt it's really going to matter. In any case, I'm not willing to sacrifice my minute-to-minute and day-to-day user experience for something that is unlikely to ever happen. I strongly suspect most Mac OS X users feel the same.
Design Element
Complexity is Too Expensive
Posted Jul 10, 2006 — 26 comments below


Kyle S. — Jul 10, 06 1437

I totally agree. I switched from Linux/Windows to OSX/Windows for my two main computers. Upon buying the PowerBook I dropped Linux like a bad habit because it did virtually everything I needed out of my Linux machine and it did it without the hassle of getting it running. OS X just worked. Sad to say my Windows machine went POOF, so now I'm down to just a PowerBook and I'm looking at buying a new "Mac Pro" or whatever they'll call the PowerMac replacement when it ships, or even just an iMac.

Linux worked great once I got it configured. But you always had to update software, update the kernel when a new version came out, etc etc etc. Almost all of the time it involved some form of user intervention. On the Mac it's a few button clicks and a 30 second restart later usually. Works for me and I have plenty of time to do other more enjoyable activities.

Great post.

Ravi Khalsa — Jul 10, 06 1438

Thanks! Exactly why I don't care about Ubuntu.

dc — Jul 10, 06 1440

Well, one of the big draws of Ubuntu is that GUIwise it's at least comparable to OS9 (thanks to the UI freaks at Gnome) and that its focus, unlike other Linuces, really is on having everything Just Work(tm). And, for the most part, they really do get it right.

The interface is very solid and extremely customizable, and has nifty features like a modifier key to drag a window by any part, OmniDazzle-like cursor extras for laptop users, multiple desktops, nice screensavers, solid buil-in games (wish the LiveCD had tangrams, Mah Jonng was my personal favorite), web browser, and office suite, windowshadable windows (it's easy to forget how goddamn useful those are), etc. The overall feel for me was classic MacOS with a taskbar and some nifty extensions--not bad at all, for a Linux. I would not hesitate to recommend it over Windows, something which has been difficult to say about non-Mac OSes in the past.

Anyway, I just fiddled with it for a few hours on my Powerbook, and I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't impressive enough to convince me to switch from X--I am too far in love with too many OSX apps to uproot to a whole new OS (iPhoto/iTunes/Mail/Adium/TextMate/Photoshop)--but they are definitely doing something interesting, and their hearts are in the right place.

I heartily encourage anyone even remotely interested in seeing what this Linux thing has to offer to head over to and download one of their PowerPC LiveCDs (make sure you get the live bootable 'desktop' ISO, and not the installer-only 'alternate'--that woulda saved me a few hours). It will require a few minutes of computer time that are not directly making you money, but for myself, I feel it was an informative and worthwhile expedition into some of the more uncharted wilds of desktop computing.

This is the paragraph of Ubuntu caveats, if anyone gives a damn. - I found myself missing the Dock very terribly. Does that make me a sucker? Isn't the Dock supposed to suck? - The wireless driver in their current version Doesn't Work At All(tm) with Airport cards, making it nearly as useless and annoying as any other Linux for day to day use, for me. YMMV. - Expose, obviously, is not there (there is a 'reveal desktop' button which is handy)... wonder if there's a good X11 implementation. - Can't read HFS+ volumes, makes it pretty difficult to actually try to get work done. - Linux apps, as you note, generally do not have the polish and consistency which I think people have a right to expect from their software. Gnome and KDE apps have competing HIG standards, widgets do not always look good, toolbar buttons don't always have tooltips (click-n-pray?). Small things, but they do add up.

Scott Stevenson — Jul 10, 06 1441 Scotty the Leopard

Well, one of the big draws of Ubuntu is that GUIwise it's at least comparable to OS9 (thanks to the UI freaks at Gnome) and that its focus, unlike other Linuces, really is on having everything Just Work(tm)

I guess I should have mentioned I haven't tried Ubuntu specifically, but whether or not it's a good distribution is separate from my point. It's still Linux, and the experience is more harsh and demanding than Mac OS X.

Apple's first priority with Mac OS X was to make it a consumer OS. Everything else -- system services, applications, UI, documentation, API, even the business model -- branches off of that.

While it sounds like the Ubuntu people are putting in a solid effort (which I truly admire), it's an immense task to bend Linux to the Mac OS X level of usability and polish. Apple has a giant lead in this area and the culture to support it.

dg — Jul 10, 06 1442

Seems like someone like Mark doesn't mind a learning curve. And any new OS is going to require one. I think Mac is easier, sure, but not if you are used to using a PC. Then it's the Mac that has to be learned.

I can deal with my PC when I have to, but much prefer my Mac.

I'd like to learn other systems out of curiosity, so long as I always had my Mac when I needed to get stuff done.

James Cunningham — Jul 10, 06 1443

I switched from Linux - Fedora, Debian, then Ubuntu - full time for a number of months before I bought my Mac; the experience was less than fun. Near the end of it I began to migrate back to Windows with Cygwin, which was a portion of the impetus behind buying the Mac in the first place, I suppose.

X11 kinda sucks: slow, bulky, annoying. I cannot use a notebook without suspend-to-ram, and - hell - suspend-to-disk didn't work often enough that it was unusable for me anyway. These things take time to work around. And for what?

I can back up iCal in iCalendar. I can save my mail in mbox or plain text format. I don't use iTunes metadata very much. I don't have thousands of gigabytes of raw video lying around that I'll almost certainly have no need to look at. This whole debate seems to me like a tempest in a teapot - I can't think of any part of OS X that could keep me from my data, if I had the foresight to protect it in the first place.

As for Exposť on X11, pick your poison:

Gnome: skippy
KDE: Komposť

But unless you have a decent video card fully supported in Linux, I wouldn't even bother.

David Young — Jul 10, 06 1444

"Macs and Cocoa usually leave you with more free time than the alternatives, and help you to better enjoy actual work time..."

Never heard it said better.

Nathaniel Nutter — Jul 11, 06 1445

Mark's essays got me thinking, and I really do agree with everything he said at least as far as data preservation goes. The problem is the data he is talking about, his videos, photos, music, documents, emails, etc. derives much of its value from being easy to create. I came really close to switching to Linux several times over the past 10 years or so. It really seems like no matter how much Linux improves there is always some problem that keeps it from "just working."

Like I said, the value of Apple's software (and many third-party cocoa developers') is that things are usually so easy to do and that makes it easy to create. I am have more control over my data than I do over my creative abilities so for now I am a Mac guy, and I suspect that will not change.

Nathaniel Nutter — Jul 11, 06 1446

I just wanted to add:

The fact that the fonts in this browser are rendered beautifully; that as I type it is being spellchecked; that the button below "Add Ye Thoughts" matches my OS; that is "just works".

MJ — Jul 11, 06 1448

The thing that frames this for me is that LONGTIME Mac users switch to Linux. I don't know much about these guys individually but remarking on a possible trend of Mac users switching to Linux.

ten years ago this would have been near unbelievable but it's possible to say that OSX has provided many UNIX-phobes with a semi-comfortable transition period to one of the "light" Linuxen. uBuntu and it's even-more-fun sibling, Edubuntu are certainly the leading lights out there - taking up the torch where, IMO, Corel Linux really shone.

Maybe Mac Os X is therefore a victim of it's own success. If you believe the hype.

The reason this is news is because it seems incredible, ie, hard to believe. Haven't we been hearing about Linux uptake being incredible yadda yadda?

Goes to show that nothing really changes.

Scott Stevenson — Jul 11, 06 1449 Scotty the Leopard

The thing that frames this for me is that LONGTIME Mac users switch to Linux

Mark used a Mac, but he used Emacs and VLC. Have you used these things? They aren't elegant. Mark may have used Macs for a long time, but I don't think he's at all the definitive Mac user.

Nathaniel Nutter — Jul 11, 06 1450

Scott, that's the point exactly. Mark chose to not take advantage of much of what makes Mac OS X awesome so of course it wasn't as appealing. As far as Cory is concerned he is an anti-DRM fanatic (and I appreciate that, we need vocal people to help protect us).

I can say objectively that OS X provides a better experience than any Linux distro. Yes, the core point was data preservation but that could have been accomplished on the Mac. Mark more or less chose to switch over political issues.

Boyan — Jul 12, 06 1451

Great post, I couldn't agree more. Finaly someone to stand up and say "good luck, but I don't care". Internet is like a huge echo-machine, something once said almost becomes universal truth.

I can accept Pilgrim's arguments, but not necessarily agree with them. I am a programmer, but I don't care if software I use at home comes with source-code, I surely will never have a free time to (God forbid) dig through other people's code to "fix" it. Whoever says different is either lying, have never programmed more than "Hello World" before, has too much spare time, or all of the above. But I do agree on necessity for open data formats though, it becomes incredibly important in today's software climate.

I do run WinXP, Ubuntu and MacOSX (at the same time mostly on several boxes) and there is really nothing there in Ubuntu to deserve such a hype. Partial "user-friendliness" in Ubuntu (till you try to install 3D support for your graphics card) has a long way to go before Gnome replaces MacOSX as my favourite OS.

Richard Albury — Jul 13, 06 1452

I don't care if I can't read Mark Pilgrim's email in 25 years. ;-)

Panagiotis Atmatzidis — Jul 14, 06 1453

There are two markets. The server market and the desktop market. I believe that the battle in the server market is mostly gone for every other OS, GNU/Linux has taken over the big corps. They found a platform to drop their applications on, free of charge. The Free Software movement has created spectacular software like Apache, Bind, Sendmail and others you probably know, this is a one way street.
On the Desktop market nowadays the most advanced OS is for sure Tiger. The word advanced means usability and feeling first, advanced features (like spotlight) after. KDE and GNOME are making a great effort, I believe that GNU/Linux it's increasing it's percentage of Desktop users as well. You'll see that in a few years, most state owned companies will turn their software to Free Software, which is most cases means Open Source and Linux, this will make it even more popular. There is no OS that can give the young Hacker as much as Linux (I keep the BSD's out of the conversation in purpose), it's not only the kernel source code.. it's an entire culture that it's behind this.. it's the killer features that are first released as a hard-core bad written project under Linux, feature that the advanced users can use and they like. If Linux was not created by Linus in 1992 in 1993 someone would have done it, he said so too.
We are lucky to have so many choices, and it's not fair to compare these two OS's because the one is company driven Desktop OS while the other one comes out of people who write code in their spare time for free.
My server run's Gentoo GNU/Linux for almost 2 years now, and I never faced serious issues. My desktop of choice is certainly OS X, but I'd be happy with GNU/Linux too, especially if I didn't had the money to afford a Mac. Microsoft if does not come up with something at least comparable, is doomed.

Another thing, if you look this at the long run (50-100 years from now), with the existing lawsuits and rules, I believe that every other OS except Linux is doomed. The choice will be to go Open Source or die.

Scott Stevenson — Jul 14, 06 1454 Scotty the Leopard

Another thing, if you look this at the long run (50-100 years from now), with the existing lawsuits and rules, I believe that every other OS except Linux is doomed.

I'm not sure even the concept of an OS or a computer as a separate thing will really survive that long. If there is such a thing at the time, I doubt it will resemble anything we have today.

Rodney — Jul 16, 06 1455

I have tried Linux from Debian Potato to Zenwalk, Slackware to Ubuntoo.
Libranet was brilliant in its ease to use and update but Tiger leaves them all for dead in it's polish and use.

Weldon — Jul 19, 06 1464

Mark seems to be a "hammer looking for a nail" to paraphrase Maslow. If he were an auto mechanic, he might build his car each morning before going into work and then tear it down when he returned home each night...

As part of my transition off of Windows to some flavor of Unix back in 2004, I had to three basic requirements for these *nixes: (1) overall stability of the OS, (2) strong networking and internet capability, and (3) user interface that was consistent across the board and that I didn't have to tweak excessively to get it to 'look right'.

I researched the various Linux (and BSDs) distros but found that they could meet (1) and (2) of my require but neither KDE or Gnome could really meet (3). Then after talking to a long time (20+ years) Mac-using friend of mine who explained to me that OSX was now *nix based and having watching him demo various standard apps, I knew immediately that Mac OS X was for me.

Two years on now and I have only one PC (down from seven in 2004) and now have a Powerbook G4, iBook G4 (the wife's), MacBook Pro, miniMac G4 and PowerMac G5. I use my Powerbook/MacBook Pro more on a daily basis than I ever did my PCs or laptops.

Mike — Jul 24, 06 1468

Some people like graphics, other prefer a command prompt. Some enjoy tweaking while others just want their job done, thats not bad! Some wants functionality while others funfare! People are usually different and so, want different things. Windows, MacOS, Linux, BeOS and the rest of the guys just covers specific needs and wants.

Its when you try to persuade others that YOUR taste is better than THEIRS that creates problems.. you cannot argue about taste! :-P

Mike — Jul 24, 06 1469

Some people like graphics, other prefer a command prompt. Some enjoy tweaking while others just want their job done, thats not bad! Some wants functionality while others funfare! People are usually different and so, want different things. Windows, MacOS, Linux, BeOS and the rest of the guys just covers specific needs and wants.

Its when you try to persuade others that YOUR taste is better than THEIRS that creates problems.. you cannot argue about taste! :-P

Jack — Nov 29, 06 2502

I think you've got it all wrong. Mac has problems too, as does Microsoft Windows. Linux is easy to use and has many features you just don't get out of the box with Mac or Microsoft Windows. Your problems probably are support related because you didn't purchase a Linux computer, Linux accessories, etc. Your looking at it from one unique perspective. In the US Mac desktops make up a larger market share than Linux desktops. The catch is Mac market outside of the states is tiny to non-existent. Linux on the other hand has a large market share that is diverse and spread out around the world. As a result you see it less, you see less support, etc. But it does have a good size of the desktop market.

What I find funny is how Apple takes what is essentially a "GNU/Linux project" and strips out the good stuff. Konqueror has many excellent hidden features that aren't available in Safari. Safari's html rendering engine is the Konqueror KHTML rendering engine.

Gabriel — Mar 10, 07 3696

I have to agree that you can't judge an OS just on what one person likes. I like GNU/Linux personally, macs just irritate me (but I am sure I could get used to one). Of course, I wouldn't push that on anyone. I did, however, tell my wife for her next computer, I would rather she use Linux or Mac OS. Unfortunately, my jaw dropped when i realized it would take 2 grand to get a 15 inch laptop. Sigh. If apple isn't going to release Mac os so that any PC user could buy and install it, I wish they would offer equivalent classes of machines (i.e, towers under 1000, 15 inch laptops from 600 to 2500, etc).

Now, on to what I have to say about linux. Note the use of GNU/Linux. i am not so normally pedantic about the name, but lets look at the MACH(derivative at least)/MAC system. It is a standard kernel not developed by apple, that is running an apple built gui (and other stuff, of course) on top. First of all, Linux is not arcane. It is not really much harder to use than windows or mac, the differences now are really much more subtle. Second, Linux can be what you want. Linux is an operating system. X11 is a gui, which by the way, is not the only gui that can run on linux (See some of the gui's used on PDA's. Even X11 can be tuned and extended, look at AIGLX (forget the XGL hack, AIGLX is much better). This is a 3d desktop that in about a year, does most of what the vista desktop does. (Of course, I am including projects such as beryl or compiz which actually provide the UI elements themselves). So, there is nothing stopping "linux" distros from developing and becoming advanced guis as good as or better than macs, particularly if enough people and companies are on board to do more development. Finally, regarding drivers, it is not linux's fault overall (Perhaps a MORE flexible driver api would help a little bit, but its pretty easy to develop them). If more people use linux, you will see, well, just about everything supported on linux.

My verdict, let linux grow, let mac grow (but I hope they do open up at least a little, i don't want the next microsoft that is also tied in as hardware vendor, shudder). Let no one have a monopoly. Besides, mac OS 11 or 12 might actually get built on linux (it can be done, same thing that was done with MACH/DARWIN)

coolfactor — Mar 11, 07 3697

@ Gabriel

You obviously haven't checked out the recent Macs. There's plenty of choice. The Mac mini is a full-featured computer haat the sub-$1000 price you're after. In the PC world, you get what you pay for. In the Mac world, you get more than you pay for.

Stripes — Mar 11, 07 3698


Yes Apple has an inexpensive Mac (Mac mini), and Macs that are price competitive with Dells desktops (Mac Pro), and even Macs that are price competitive with high end PC Laptops (MacBook Pro).

The MacBook (non-Pro) is very likely even price competitive with something in the PC market.

What Apple doesn't have is something that competes in the non-high-end 15" PC laptop market. Want a 15" laptop Mac? Then it's a MacBook Pro. Want a 15" laptop Mac but don't need (or can't afford) fast CPU, an expansion slot, and a "non-integrated" GPU? Too bad, it's still a MacBook Pro for you.

The current Mac lineup has every Mac price competitive with some roughly equivalent segment of the PC market...but that doesn't mean there is a Mac that competes in _every_ segment of the market.

coolfactor — Mar 11, 07 3699

@ Stripes

I agree. Apple doesn't compete in every segment. But where they do compete, they excel, in my opinion. They keep their product simple and streamlined. Sometimes too much choice isn't a time- (or money-) saver for people.

On topic, here in my town, I've been amazed at the changing trend towards people purchasing Macs. Quite different from just one year ago, but now I'm surrounded by people talking about and purchasing Macs.

I agree with the author... our lives are getting busier and more complex, and we need computers that just get the job done without making more work for ourselves. Some still enjoy the feeling of being in complete control of their computer. When I was younger, I used to spend hours, literally, searching Apple's FTP server for new tricks for my OS 7 Mac. Those were the days! Today, Software Update keeps my Mac updated and I spend not even a minute searching for tweaks for my system. Apple does that for me.

As the sole tech support person for a local ISP, I assist over a hundred customers, 95% of which use Windows, and I manage a dozen Linux boxes. My Mac (and the Linux boxes) gets 1% of my time for maintenance while I spend 99% of my time addressing helping others keep their computers running correctly. I do it because of the people, not the computers.

Scott Stevenson — Mar 11, 07 3702 Scotty the Leopard

@Gabriel: but lets look at the MACH(derivative at least)/MAC system. It is a standard kernel not developed by apple, that is running an apple built gui
This is mostly untrue. Apple did not create the original version of Mach, but it has been actively developing its own derivative of it for some time. It's not as if Apple is just doing the window manager on top or anything like that. If you poke around the sources for 'xnu' in Darwin you'll see what's going on.

In any case, I know Linux is very flexible and the kernel is not married to the window manager or desktop environment. I started using Linux ten years ago (along with SunOS, Solaris and FreeBSD). There's a lot to like. None of this is specific to Linux, of course. The same can be said for any Unix-based system.

I do think the overall difference in experience between Linux and the Mac is more significant than you say. But even if that wasn't true, there are some other big factors: Cocoa, TextMate, Final Cut, iLife, iTunes.

My verdict, let linux grow, let mac grow
Yep. I agree.

As for the hardware thing, you might have a point about the 15" laptop, but it's a tricky balancing act for Apple. If they had a 15" MacBook and a 15" MacBook Pro, consumers would be very confused. Their options are either to eliminate the pro features entirely or eliminate the low end entirely. It seems the current solution is an attempt to split the difference.

On the desktop side, I don't think there's a market for an entry level tower. Clearly some professionals need four hard drives and such, but that's what the Mac Pro is for. I'm not sure what an entry-level consumer looking to spend $1000 would do with all of that empty space. What would they put in the tower? The iMac seems like a better fit at that price range.


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