Skip to Content
Skip to Table of Contents

← Previous Article Next Article →

ATPM 12.07
July 2006


How To



Download ATPM 12.07

Choose a format:


by Wes Meltzer,

It’s Time to Say Goodbye

Remember that kid you knew in high school, the one who started playing baseball or soccer or football when he was in elementary school and kept doing it until he was a starter on the varsity team? Or maybe he was a photographer, or a painter, or a writer, and just made it seem effortless. He was friendly, and he made a point of suggesting that everyone start doing it. Maybe you even took him up on the offer. Maybe you’re still doing whatever it is that kid did.

Do you remember being surprised, a little startled, when you found out that he’d given it up—packed up his bags, and moved on?

Mark Pilgrim’s highly publicized switch this month from the Macintosh platform to Ubuntu Linux on a Lenovo ThinkCentre made the kind of waves that only that kid from high school could.

Pilgrim was a longtime Mac power-user and hacker, and an early blogger, whose collection of software and writing was highly influential to a great many of us. Like me. I wouldn’t say that I bought my first Mac because of Pilgrim’s writing, but I think it’s fair to say also that I might not have had the kernel of an idea that buying one was the right decision without his help.

So on June 2, when he announced that he’d walked into an Apple store and walked out without buying a new computer, and instead had bought a PC, many of us were genuinely stunned. It was not a hardware decision for him, but a software decision: as an open-source enthusiast, Pilgrim wanted open data formats and open code, and Apple has a history of providing neither. He wrote:

And what about those wonderful Apple programs that I haven’t replaced with open-source alternatives? I loved iPhoto until my iPhoto database got corrupted one day, and I lost all my ratings, keywords, and albums because that information is stored in an undocumented binary black hole. Yeah yeah, I know about AlbumData.xml. That has its own problems, and in my case it was already corrupted by the time iPhoto noticed. I’ll give them some credit for trying.

Similarly, I loved iTunes until my iTunes database got corrupted, too. Once again, I lost all my ratings and about two dozen well-thought-out interlocking “smart” playlists. And once again, all of the irreplaceable metadata was stored in an undocumented binary black hole. Yeah yeah, the XML backup again. iTunes even helpfully offered to restore from it… except that it didn’t restore any of my aforementioned metadata, so it’s not really a backup, is it? “A” for effort, “D-” for implementation.


I’m creating things now that I want to be able to read, hear, watch, search, and filter 50 years from now. Despite all their emphasis on content creators, Apple has made it clear that they do not share this goal. Openness is not a cargo cult. Some get it, some don’t. Apple doesn’t.

About as soon as he posted about this, the feedback started flooding in, many from Mac users who sounded angry and betrayed by the loss of a highly publicized figure. It’s a little like finding out that your representative or senator, or the head of your political party, just switched to the other party. An aside: those of you who remember when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords became an independent in early 2001 may recognize some of the screaming, angry vitriol in the comments on Pilgrim’s initial entry.

That was where John Gruber got involved. He is, as always, an excellent and level-headed analyst, and his take on Pilgrim’s argument can be reduced to a quick punch: he thinks it’s worth exchanging a little openness for a better and more intuitive user interface, but not everyone does. Gruber makes the neat analogy that reminding the reverse-switcher that his new UI is not as good is “like telling someone who is switching from a Chevy Tahoe to a Toyota Prius that he’s not going to have as much cargo room. He knows it.”

Gruber seems to believe, as I always have, in the relativism of operating systems. Now, that’s my facetious shorthand for saying that for each user there is a best operating system, and that it is not necessarily OS X. And if, like Mark Pilgrim, you are extremely worried about open formats and open source code, OS X cannot be the best operating system for you.

Mark Pilgrim responded with an exhaustive list of all the times that, in fact, his data or code were broken by Apple, starting in 1983. He also makes the fair point that extinct data formats are much more easily converted when they’re documented.

But this wasn’t just a two-person conversation, plus a bunch of jumping-up-and-down ranters in the comments box. It provoked the question, “Is it time for me to switch?” in Tim Bray and Ted Leung, who are both prominent Mac users and serious open-source evangelists as well. Bray breaks down his list into things that would already make it easy for him to switch, things that are sticky, and things that are keeping him on a Mac, notably projection and fast resume-from-sleep. I would note, though, that some of the best open-source software either runs on Macs or is OS X–native, like Adium and Firefox. He also thinks Apple should open-source some of its applications. (Gruber writes, later: Sure, but they won’t.)

Leung suggests that it’s just a matter of time before he starts using Linux as his primary operating system, that there’s just a certain degree of spit and polish Linux needs before he’ll port all of his data over. He, too, lists features that he expects from Linux: better font support, scriptable applications, color management, something like iSync, and more great applications.

I’m not sure how possible these are. Eric S. Raymond’s bazaar model may get the job done, but UI spit and polish is hard labor in the salt mines, and very few people will do that for free. On that note, Rui Carmo says that developing software is like cooking, where even if you have the instructions or source code, getting it just right requires a great deal of know-how, something the casual cook might not have. I think it’s a reasonable point.

At any rate, good luck, gentlemen. And godspeed, Mark Pilgrim.

Bread Pudding

  • What’s up with the OS X kernel, and why hasn’t the Intel version been made open source? There’s been a lot of speculation, since Avie Tevanian left, that Apple is switching from Mach to something else, and that that is the hold-up. To this I say, bah, spare your oxygen. John Siracusa agrees: there are lots of good reasons (like important kernel changes for 10.5, or trimming out proprietary Rosetta code) for Apple to delay the release. But they do have to do it, sooner or later, to comply with the license. So keep your eyes open.
  • The California Court of Appeals has ruled that California’s shield-law privileges for journalists apply to the bloggers in the Apple v. Does case. Ars Technica has a fascinating analysis, and Macworld takes the court to task for being inconsistent with its application of the shield law. I don’t know if I agree with Macworld, because the spirit of California’s shield law is to protect reporters no matter what kind of media they work for, but it’s still a persuasive argument.
  • This month’s nominees for the JFK Shot by LBJ Award: Toronto’s Globe and Mail, for wondering whether Apple might partner with RIM, the maker of the Blackberry, to produce the “AppleBerry”; and CNet’s Crave, for speculating that Apple might buy Nintendo. I am speechless. I have no speech. Moving right along.
  • Would you believe that Dave Winer—yes, I know—caught John C. Dvorak on camera, saying that he deliberately tries to piss off Mac users in his columns, just to generate more readers? You must watch this video. It’s just unbelievable. Gruber notes that he has long believed this was so, but that he was surprised to hear Dvorak admit it. The Slashdot thread, with its 272 mostly hilarious comments, is well worth a read.
  • Windows Vista will now run on your MacBook Pro, too. Via a Microsoft staffer himself. Wow. One more way to get my whole family to switch…
  • Another reason to love OS X: Sane application installers. Since I left the Linux world in 2002, I have very rarely had to ask myself, “Why must I install this dependency again?”

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (3)

Charles Cribbs · July 1, 2006 - 21:39 EST #1
How in the world does someone blow up two databases? I have 10.3.9 running on an iMac G3 500MHz. I originally installed 10.1.5, then 10.2 on top of it, and then 10.3 on top of that. Never wiped the drive and started over, and I have had ZERO application or system issues in almost 6 years. I have to believe he is a tinkerer who can't keep his hands off files behind the scenes. I know plenty of Windows geeks who do the same thing, to their own detriment. Maybe I am wrong, but seriously, I just can't believe he isn't leaving things alone. And does he really think he is going to be MORE productive running Linux? Does anyone who runs Linux just install it and forget it? I can only imagine trying to find drivers, compile and install apps, and the headaches and wasted time that go with it all in the name of "Apple just doesn't do it for me anymore." I have been a Mac user since 1987 and what sets the Mac OS apart is the lack of constantly upgrading, updating, and installing crap just to keep the OS running.

To each his own.
Gregory Tetrault · July 3, 2006 - 20:07 EST #2
I have to agree with Charles Cribbs. Pilgrim, a supposed computer expert, did not have backups? Has he not heard of Carbon Copy Cloner or similar utilities?

Pilgrim is angry because 23 ago Apple did not make an AppleWorks to Microsoft Word converter that perfectly preserved blank lines, and they did not make AppleWorks open source so he could muck around with it. If Pilgrim was so obsessed with open source and open formats, he should have written his poems in monospaced ASCII text, which was the only open format available on personal computers in 1983.

Pilgrim expects that the open formats of today will exist in 50 years. That is an unrealistic expectation.

I have been using Macs since 1983 and have not lost any important files due to Apple's proprietary formats. The keys to long term data preservation are to hang onto your existing Mac when the new line is completely different (such as the 680x0 to PPC switch), hang onto orphaned softare (such as Aldus Persuasion, Trapeze, PaperPort, or OS 9), convert your data files to a currently supported format (open or a new proprietary one), and write your converted files to new blank media. Confirm that the converted data files work well before dumping your old hardware and software.

For example, I kept an old Mac that could run System 6 until I had converted important documents created with orphaned software like SuperPaint or QuickBasic. I am doing the same with System 8 for my PaperPort and Marco Polo documents (which I will convert to TIFFs with the help of AppleScript and/or QuicKeys).
Angus Wong · July 11, 2006 - 04:21 EST #3
I can understand the frustration but going to Linux full-time isn't something I would likely do. Run Linux or Windows in a, ah, window, under virtualization, in OS X, on a Mac, would be something I'd do, but not ditch the best platform in the world. I think Mark's main gripe is the retention of "preferences" (be it ratings or smart lists). I am sure many of us are sick of clicking in tiny little boxes to customize all our apps. I had to redo all my Treo settings last week. The data is fine. The settings aren't.
The solution for all of us probably lies in .Mac or some upcoming Google sync thing which backs up our Prefs like the Browser Sync does for Firefox (and by the way, I've had issues with Browser Sync; have uninstalled it). The main data we can export to .txt or .jpg or .mp3 but the META data is the issue here.

Add A Comment

 E-mail me new comments on this article