Tuesday June 27, 2006

Ted Leung has a very good list of the things the open-source desktop should be doing.

I started to respond by giving pointers to various half-solutions to these problems; Deskbar or Arnic to replace Quicksilver, for example; but he really has a point. There are some definite weak areas on the Linux desktop that MacOS X addresses well. The lack of some unified scripting approach is particularly embarrassing; the fact that it is easier to script applications in both major proprietary desktops (OS X through Applescript, Windows through COM) is sad. Also, DVI and EDID are (as far as I can tell) far enough along that the hardware side of color profiling would be possible in Linux these days, it's just up to the OS and the desktop to support it.

(I am not mentioning KDE here because the last few times I've tried it, it has crashed constantly, and that mirrors my abysmal experience with programming PyQT. I understand a great many people use it, and more power to you, but it's just not likely to be relevant to me any time in the near future.)

So, rather than pointing out how a user such as Ted might hobble through Ubuntu-land, I'll give an explanation from my point of view: for me, Ubuntu is indispensible, and the Mac is basically unusable.

I'm not prejudiced against Apple. Far from it, in fact. I grew up on the Mac, and I will always have a soft spot in my heart for them. Through the first few years of my career as a professional programmer, I had the absolute first release of MacOS X server, and every beta of MacOS X. My experiences with Ubuntu have made me disappointed with Apple though, and I despair of MacOS ever being my platform of choice again. Following the structure of Ted's rant, here are some things that Apple might do to make me "switch":

Add some keyboard shortcuts. During normal use of my Ubuntu desktop, the only time I have to use the mouse is to quickly select links in a poorly-designed application (usually a web application, where keyboard bindings are really hard to get right). I move windows, maximize, minimize, resize and otherwise shuffle things around all the time - not using any crazy third-party utility, but the built-in keybindings in Metacity.

For that matter, building virtual desktops into the OS wouldn't hurt. I'm aware that there are a few third-party programs, but it would be much nicer to have there be one right way to do it. I've heard it said that this would be "too hard" for new users, but I think that's wrong. The idea of a single virtual monitor you can "move to" makes more sense to every user I've ever talked to than the mac's "invisible sheets with a menu bar and icon stuck to them" mental model you're supposed to adopt with the mac desktop. It took about five tries to explain the difference between an "open" and "closed" application on the mac to my grandmother, because the icon to indicate this difference is literally about 9 pixels, and applications will happily stay open forever with no visible windows.

Give me a panel I can really customize, not just drop applications onto. There are a few things I want to see on the screen at all times: memory usage, mounted disks, the current weather, the current time. The GNOME panel lets me put all of these somewhere omnipresent in a nice, small form factor with no fuss. These are not things that every user wants to see, so it has to be customizable. This is not a case of not having selected the right default or not having "designed" it right. Some people's needs are different enough that you need some freedom to choose.

Work on scaling applications up. I have dozens of gigabytes of free stock photos and artwork and photos that I've taken, and while I haven't tried Aperture, iPhoto did not handle this well, and it didn't let me use it as a way to organize metadata without making copies of all the files. My mac's hard drive wasn't big enough for all the files I wanted to categorize: I have a terabyte network appliance for this purpose. I have dozens of gigabytes of music; every CD I have ever owned has been encoded (in multiple formats, including FLAC. iTunes chokes if I try to load my entire music library, let alone load it from multiple computers all on the shared drive. Unfortunately the default music player in Ubuntu (Rhythmbox) isn't great, but the fantastic Quod Libet lets me not only load my massive library, but perform bulk cleanups on the ID3 tags (many of my CDs were ripped before I had easy access to the CDDB, some are in OGG format, I didn't adopt a consistent naming convention until recently).

Frankly, iTunes' DRM is offensive. I had a problem with my ITMS account, reinstalled my OS and reformatted my iPod one too many times, and now I can't play a bunch of my legitimately purchased music. (Update: Bob Ippolito corrects me in the comments; this was simply a problem I've persionally had with the ITMS, not a matter of policy. It's unlikely that you'd have this problem with music you purchased today.) If iTunes were otherwise a really great music management tool and had worked well with my large repository of non-DRM'd music, I probably would have cut it some slack: but part of the problem is that iTunes corrupts its own database, and my iPod crashes when confronted with the volume of music I'm storing on it and periodically needs reformatting if I want it to work.

Finally, rather than respond to Ted's list of applications, let me talk about Free Software's killer application: APT, the Advanced Packaging Tool.

It would take me forever to list all the applications that MacOS X is missing out of the box which Ubuntu includes in a fresh installation. Just to name a few: Gaim, a messaging client where I can seamlessly integrate IRC, yahoo, AIM, jabber and a half-dozen other protocols. Inkscape, an Illustrator-style vector graphics editor which works natively in SVG. Gimp, a photoshop-style bitmap editor. OpenOffice. There are, of course, equivalents to all of these on the mac, but they're expensive, underfeatured, or clunky and obviously not native, and sometimes two of the three. The real magic here though isn't one particular application (after all, Ubuntu isn't packaged with an equivalent to GarageBand or Aperture) but the fact that they were preinstalled; I don't need to mess around with ten clicks per application just to get them set up: they're all there, immediately.

As a user, this is convenient, but as a developer, it quickly becomes indispensable. To set up a new working environment on a Mac, I would have to spend hours downloading, untarring, building, checking dependencies, installing -- or if I were lucky, clicking on packages, accepting EULAs, etc. For example: "apt-get build-dep python" summons all the packages I need to compile my own version of Python; a collection of software it might take an hour to identify without this facility, let alone install.

Sure, there's fink and darwinports, but those don't manage user-visible, GUI applications in the same way that they do UNIX-style development stuff. Note that the first things I mentioned were actual end-user apps, not arcane requirements for programming tools. In other words, these aren't really a part of the OS on MacOS X, they are a port of features from other OSes, and they feel like it.

Fundamentally, what my user experience comes down to is this: I install ten or twenty programs or libraries per week, but I spend almost no time at all actually doing the installing. If each of those twenty libraries took me five minutes to set up, that's an hour of wasted time per week, which really adds up fast. Especially in weeks like last one, setting up a new computer, where I installed several hundred packages: 200 packages would be almost 2 solid work-days of just installing software!

I feel like this all boils down to an attitude. Succeed or fail, Ubuntu is just trying to provide me with tools to work with my data. It installs software as fast as it can go, it loads as much music and as many pictures as it can handle, and it doesn't bother me with the details if it can help it. The mac is too, but I feel as though each application is suffering from some sort of inferiority complex. Each new application needs to make itself heard. It can't just be ready to use instantly; it must make itself felt, through whatever mechanism. I must commune with each sacred EULA alone; I must wait for the download bar, mount the virtual disk, draaaaag the icon to my Applications folder. I must select the drive that I wish the software to be installed to. I must confirm that yes, I am sure I want to overwrite files. Yes, all of them.

This could probably be fixed at a technical and legal level - after all, a good deal of these applications are free to download already, the delivery mechanism can't make that much of a difference, and Apple already delivers all of its updates through a generic "software updates" facility which could be expanded to offer the features of an APT repository. I have no idea how to deal with the cultural problem, though, where each application author (even if all their application does is launch other applications!) feels they deserve twenty minutes of your attention and five dollars.

Sometimes free software breaks. Sometimes, all software breaks. I haven't really had one of these moments with Ubuntu yet, but I'm sure I will: Sometimes it breaks really, really bad and I have to do those ridiculous things that Apple users in commercials laugh at Windows users in Apple commercials doing to fix it. I have, in a dim and distant past I would rather not recall, had to edit the spiritual equivalent of my AUTOEXEC.BAT. I can see why to many people it just isn't worth it. I'm not suffering under some stern ascetic desktop because I want to "support free software" or anything like that though. In general, the experience is quite pleasant, and I don't think it would really improve that much if I used a Mac. Freedom does have some practical consequences, though. Those times when I want to do something with Linux that really would be better on a mac, it's worth suffering through for the knowledge that, if it breaks, it's not going to intentionally stop me from fixing it because it wants to charge me $0.99 for another copy of the song.