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ATPM 12.08
August 2006



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by Wes Meltzer,

Earth Tones

In Britain, summer is known as the “silly season,” because even though politicians are on vacation, the press still needs to sell papers and the broadcast media still need viewers. So they run frivolous, silly stories with blaring headlines for the entire summer.

Here we are, it’s the first of August, and that story from early June about Mark Pilgrim switching to Linux just won’t go away. I say it is the silly season: we have no better stories.

Now, having said that, this is the best story we have, and it’s spawned a variety of interesting discussions. I think you deserve to know about, for instance, the debate over whether Apple should relicense its software as open source. The participants are serious, and it’s interesting material.

But my usual disclaimer for this kind of material applies. On some level it reads like the seemingly endless debates over Al Gore’s earth-tone wardrobe during the 2000 campaign—it’s interesting, but doesn’t have a chance of changing anything.

So. Tim O’Reilly and John Gruber start with the big question: is Mark Pilgrim the canary in the coal mine for OS X? As O’Reilly notes, Jason Kottke discovered that Cory Doctorow has given up his Mac, and it’s entirely plausible that Paul Bausch might also. But O’Reilly’s interpretation is that this has to do with Linux, that Ubuntu is reaching the point that it may surpass Red Hat as the premier distribution. He doesn’t make any strong suggestions about Apple either way, but his commenters seem to believe that the usual barriers to using Linux—configuration, compiling applications, etc.—are keeping more people from switching the way they once switched to Macs. (I can say that was my experience, as a switcher from Linux to OS X.)

John Gruber notes that this shouldn’t worry Apple much, because the idea with currency right now, that Apple is selling more computers than it used to, apparently isn’t true. He looks at the numbers from 1996–2000 and from 2004–2006, and finds that they’re selling about the same number of computers. Apparently, by the numbers Apple isn’t really growing its market share significantly, OS X notwithstanding. (Then again, maybe not: Ars Technica reports that Apple is now ranked second in consumer preferences for likely computer buyers.) He says, “Switching is afoot—but it hasn’t yet reached the tipping point where it goes mainstream.” He seems to believe that, rather than being canaries in the coal mine, Pilgrim and Doctorow are just the prime candidates for reverse switching, the kind of geeks who care really passionately about their computers but who are not indicative of the computer market as a whole.

A different but related topic is the question of whether open-sourcing Apple’s bundled applications could fix some of the things that people like Mark Pilgrim have complained about. I mentioned in July that Tim Bray wondered why Apple’s applications couldn’t be improved upon; Gruber rebutted (and somehow, I missed it) with an interesting business-based argument. He says, essentially, that while Apple could do that, they won’t: Apple uses the software to help sell more copies of OS X. (Bill Bumgarner notes, too, that it’s surprisingly complicated to open-source traditionally closed software.)

Bray isn’t so sure, and writes:

If there were an enhanced guerrilla version of, for example,, that did message-selection correctly and had a next-unread button, both these fixes being provided by a community member, some things would happen. First, I’d use it. Second, the vast majority of Mac users wouldn’t. Third, when the Leopard release of, presumably with new goodies, came out, it would be back-ported to Tiger. Fourth, I and most of the other people using the variant would upgrade to Leopard anyhow.

Justin Blanton adds that it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the very same users who want to hack the official software to upgrade to the latest and greatest version, so they can hack that. They’re enthusiasts, remember. But Gruber isn’t sold, mostly on the grounds that even if not very many users end up downloading these “guerrilla” versions of Apple software, by the numbers, it’s still a large enough number of users to cause problems for Apple.

Now, having said all that, Rich Siegel at Glorified Typist makes a compelling argument that Pilgrim is making the fundamental error of confusing OS X with the applications that run on it. In other words, he’s making the same mistake that so many anti-Mac partisans have before. To Siegel’s mind, if you’re going to use open-source software in Linux, most of it is available for OS X—why not stick with what works?

I think I’ve indicated before that I’m agnostic on the question, but that I doubt open-source software can replicate what makes OS X great. Maybe Pilgrim is right, and we’re betting on the wrong horse. But I think Siegel’s on to something. Just a hunch.

And Angela Merkel Photographed Topless

  • You know, information about Leopard is due out in August, at the Worldwide Developers Conference, a week after this column publishes. But it’s been quiet so far on the buzz. Wonder what might make it in? Engadget had a nice Leopard rumor round-up in early July, which makes for interesting reading. I’m skeptical, but take a look. In the same vein, the G5 tower replacement (probably the “Mac Pro”) should be announced then, too, and Ars Technica has a nice look at what Intel chips could go in it.
  • Julio Ojeda-Zapata points some of his more, uh, misguided readers in the general direction of still more information on how to run Windows on a Mac. I have long refused to do such a thing, personally, but I’m willing to stipulate that it might be useful for someone. If it is for you, go ahead and take a look.
  • The iPod Hi-Fi is a reasonably slick little device, but it’s also outrageously expensive. An intrepid techie decided to turn his original Macintosh—yes, that’s right—into an extra-cool and much less expensive rendition. That iconic design can live on now!
  • Vint Cerf, one of the Founding Fathers of the Internet, gave an interview to John Battelle about Net Neutrality (yes, I’m still on that). He underscores, in the interview, just what’s at stake here: “[Why would one] base a business on this 20th century model, when you could be thinking the way the people in the U.K., in New Zealand, in The Netherlands and places like Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore are thinking[?] What they’re saying is let’s open this broadband pipe up.” By implication, Cerf says, we are not. We are moving backwards. Write your senators and representatives, to demand that they respect your right to your bandwidth.

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Reader Comments (6)

David Thompson · August 2, 2006 - 08:28 EST #1
Interesting you mention "I have long refused to do such a thing..." about running Winder$ on Apple hardware. If I want to be free of a second, Winder$-only box, I *need* to run Winder$ under OS-X. One of the reasons I bought a MacBook Pro is to have access to Parallels (not Boot Camp) so I can run Winder$ in a, well, window.

There isn't much I need from Winder$, but what I need doesn't come in OS X flavor -- that is, a few numerical models that run only under Winder$. (Although there is rumor that the tools are Java-based and so should run on anything -- if I can find the source and if it will install... blah, blah, blah...)

So, running Winder$ under OS X is a real boon for me.

Parallels, if it works out, means I *could* install Office under XP (under OS X, under BSD unix -- the recursive nature of that amuses me significantly) and eliminate the last vestige of M$ from OS X which would be "clean." I could use unix-based and OS X-based tools on the OS X side and leave the M$ junk for a separate virtual partition.

I'll be experimenting with this over the next few months.
Poster · August 2, 2006 - 12:27 EST #2
Blah. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- who cares what some popular geeks and bloggers switch to or don't switch to? It doesn't mean anything outside of what they themselves want. And we all know that geeks get off on changing things every few years anyways. It's how they stay employeed and how they start new programming trends, which are really just the same thing over and over again. Distributed computing! Personal computing! Dumb terminals! Thick clients! Who cares? Sometimes the blogosphere is so incestuous it's sickening.
Wes Meltzer (ATPM Staff) · August 2, 2006 - 13:59 EST #3

I tend to make reference to my own particular circumstances in the Bloggable column. As it happens, I really don't need Windows for anything at home -- the only Windows-only software I use is an extraordinarily expensive package custom-designed for big newspapers. Not so useful on my personal computer.

But I agree with you that there are certain applications for which having Windows on your Mac might be useful. I just can't bring myself to actually do such a thing to my PowerBook. I have gone to a great deal of effort since 1998 to avoid Windows, first switching to Linux and then to OS X, and I refuse to backslide except where my employer forces me to do so.

I'm awfully sorry that you're stuck with Windows-only software, but I wish you the best of luck in avoiding running it as much as possible!
Wes Meltzer (ATPM Staff) · August 2, 2006 - 14:22 EST #4

Lots of writers, myself included, pay slavish attention to what the big-name computer geeks do because they're usually on to something, not because we enjoy hearing the sounds of our voices. (Well. Mostly.)

I see that the first generation of an innovative application or tool is often much too difficult for the ordinary user, or even a technically minded enthusiast. At one time, all of these things were quite difficult: instant messaging, posting digital photos online, maintaining a personal Web site, even sending e-mail or browsing the Web.

But I've been using the Internet long enough now -- amazingly, just more than half my life -- and I remember doing those things when they were hard, when they were intended for enthusiasts only. Today, nearly everyone does or more of those activities online. I remember burning my first CD, and thinking that it was nigh on impossible to get it right. It was. But it gave me a taste of the future... it got me hooked.

The alpha geeks are sometimes visionaries. Maybe we feed their egos by paying attention to them; but it also gives us a sneak peek at what's coming. That's why I think it's newsworthy.

Honestly, I have no idea whether Mark Pilgrim's switch is the bellwether or just a statistical blip. That's what I love about journalism, about blogs, about tech news.
corky · August 2, 2006 - 17:23 EST #5
Nevertheless, poster has a point. While it's true that many computing trends begin with the big-name computer geeks, and that many of these things start out hard and then become easy, it's also true that many of them are like the CB fad of the 1970's. Technically interesting, but ultimately just another vehicle for pointless blather.

I mean, c'mon. IM, online photos, personal websites? 10-4, good buddy.
michael mckee · August 20, 2006 - 00:51 EST #6
Mark Pilgrim's foray into Linux got me to install a copy on my old Windows box. I even used it for a couple of weeks almost exclusively. I'm impressed with how far Linux has come in the last few years. I once worked in a Linux only business, so I have some experience with the bad old nightmare of getting things like network cards and printers to work. It is now straightforward to install. Peripherals work. The Gnome desktop looks nice. There are reasonable substitutions for many common programs. But it's no threat to OS X for most people.

The simple fact is that iPods don't work with Linux. Photoshop doesn't either. For the uber-geek and the person who only needs the minimum of software Linux is fine. For most of us, it simple doesn't support the excellent software that we've grown used to using on the Mac. You can't separate an operating system with the software that runs on it.

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