Mac Musings

OS X Is Holding Back the Mac

Daniel Knight - 2005.12.14

The personal computing world is divided into three major camps: Windows, Linux, and Macintosh. Windows accounts for about 90% of the installed base. Macs and Linux divide the remaining 10% or so between them.

Why don't Linux and the Mac OS account for a greater share of the market?

Conformity. Image. Marketing. People use Windows because everyone uses it, because it's seen as the "business" OS (thanks to IBM's adoption of Microsoft DOS way back in 1981), and because Microsoft, Intel, and dozens of hardware companies are pushing it.

Macs are seen as nonconformist computers. Different hardware. A different OS that hasn't always played well with Windows. Something only creative types use, according to the stereotype.

Linux users form another counterculture, one more technically inclined. They debate distributions, GUIs (Gnome vs. KDE), and hardware. They know that OS X should have been built on a Linux foundation - and they think Linux is accessible to the masses.

They're wrong.

I've done four Linux installations in my life. One was on my 10 GB iPod, and while it was interesting for a few days, it was troublesome in the long run. Another was on my Power Mac G4/1 GHz dual. And that's where this story begins.

Ubuntu Linux for PPC

Step one is picking a Linux distribution, and I'd heard good things about Ubuntu. So I downloaded a disk image (ISO) file and used DragonBurn to create a bootable installation CD. Then I booted from the CD and tried to install Linux.

I have a 250 GB drive inside this computer, but I didn't want to risk the installer messing up my configuration. I had a pair of 80 GB drives in an external FireWire enclosure. First problem: How do I know which of the two drives to partition for Linux? I had files on one, nothing on the other, but the installer didn't identify the drives by name.

I picked the wrong one - oh well. The installer did its thing, partitioning the drive and then installing Linux on my external drive. Theoretically I'd be able to boot both my eMac and my Power Mac from the same disk.

Theoretically, because after installing Ubuntu Linux, I discovered that you can't boot it from a FireWire drive. I did a lot of online research, and that's a pretty consistent message.

If Ubuntu Linux won't boot from an external drive, why does it allow you to install to an external drive?

Strike one.

Yellow Dog Linux is supposed to work with a FireWire drive, and I may try that someday. It also means downloading four disk images and burning four install CDs.

Ubuntu Linux for x86

Leaman Crews suggested I try installing Ubuntu on my Acer Aspire laptop. The 40 GB drive came partitioned with a small first partition and two 17 GB partitions. I don't understand the reasoning behind that, although perhaps Windows is considered so problematic that it's best to have a backup partition.

Once again I downloaded an ISO file and burned a bootable installer CD. Then I diddled around trying to figure out how to boot the Acer from a CD. Mac users don't know how easy we have it being able to just hold the C key and boot from a CD or DVD.

I finally discovered that you have to press F2 during startup and configure the laptop to look at the Combo drive before trying to boot from the hard drive. Nothing intuitive about how to change that either - but that's not a reflection on Linux.

It was really cool watching the Acer boot into Linux, and then I discovered the first problem: The installer assumes a 24- or 25-line by 80 character display, yet the widescreen display on the Acer was maybe 18 or 20 lines by 80 characters. That meant there were several lines of text that I couldn't see.

Tip to the folks at Ubuntu: Create an installer that works with widescreen laptops. Use a smaller font so we can see 24 or 25 lines like people with regular displays.

Being unable to see what I was selecting meant that I spent a lot of time going in circles, but I eventually got Ubuntu installed and running on the Acer. It was neat to see - but also fuzzy. Somehow it hadn't detected the 1280 x 800 native resolution of my display, so it was scaling 1024 x 768 to full screen. Kinda fuzzy.

Strike two.

Ubuntu Redux

I searched online for a way to rerun just the part of the installer that handled video drivers, but I couldn't find anything. I did find a few pages explaining how to go into the terminal and type in cryptic commands that had to be entered just so and varied for each and every graphics processor out there.

Not for me. Linux is supposed to be user-friendly these days. I don't want to use the terminal with Linux any more than I want to use it on OS X or use DOS on a Windows computer.

In the end I concluded that I'd have to run the installer again and do a complete installation. Ubuntu wanted to repartition my Linux partition into a system partition and a scratch partition, somehow ignoring the fact that my previous installation had already created a scratch partition.

I eventually worked around that problem by simply removing both of those partitions and having the installer create them from scratch. That took some time, because I was making blind choices with text that didn't appear on my widescreen display.

This time when it came to configuring video, I understood that you use the tab and arrow keys to move the cursor and the space bar to toggle resolutions on and off. I picked just the 1280 x 800 native resolution, and in the end I had a sharp display.

How Friendly Is Linux?

Ubuntu installs all sorts of useful applications - Firefox, chat and email software, an Office suite, several games. It's a bit different from what a Mac user is used to, but not too divergent from the Windows experience. I'd say Ubuntu is definitely less pretty than OS X or Windows, but every bit as usable.

I fiddled around. I played. I installed other browsers. I configure the messaging client. And then I tried to install things that hadn't come with the distribution. That's when I discovered that while using Linux may be as simple as Windows, installing software isn't.

The more I use Opera, the more I like it, but I couldn't get it installed. Not a big deal, since I had three other browsers, but not a good sign. Why can't Linux software have the same kind of simple installers Mac and Windows users are accustomed to?

Next I decided to see how well Linux handled Yahoo Games. The various browsers were kind enough to make it easy to install Flash when a website needed it, but Yahoo Games require Java - and Sun doesn't have a simple installer for Linux, and the Java that comes with Ubuntu Linux wasn't recognized by Yahoo.

I looked over the step-by-step instructions and tried to follow them in the terminal, but for whatever reason I couldn't get Java installed.

Strike three.

Room for Improvement

What was all this nonsense about Linux being user-friendly and accessible to the masses? I'll grant that once it's installed, it's probably as easy to use as Windows (which I, as a Mac user, find pretty cryptic), and I can definitely make my way around in it.

But what's up with installers that let you put the OS on a drive you can't boot from? Or not being able to add a resolution for your display if you botched your installation? Or not being able to easily install something as important as Java?

The Macintel Future

We live in a three OS, two hardware platform world, but that's going to start changing in 2006. Apple will begin migrating Macs to Intel CPUs, and the new "Macintel" computers will be able to run Windows, Linux x86, and Mac OS X.

Windows does a lot of things right, but the underlying operating system is so full of holes it makes Swiss cheese look solid. Linux does a lot of things right, but there are still those geeky things that require you to use the terminal.

Mac OS X does almost everything right. It's so secure that not a single virus has survived in the wild. Every program written for OS X (as opposed to ported from Linux or Unix) installs easily. The underlying kernel is a bit of a hack, ported from NeXT's x86-based OS to the PowerPC, and moving the Mac to Intel CPUs will improve things.

The question is how the future will play out. Linux is already broken into many camps - KDE aficionados vs. Gnome users, Debian vs. Slackware vs. Gentoo plus dozens of other distributions. But the core of Linux is solid, powerful, efficient, and doesn't get as bogged down with multithreading as the Mac OS.

In many ways, OS X is what Linux would be with a great GUI. Likewise, Linux is in some ways what OS X could be. For all its strengths, OS X does allow tasks to so dominate the OS that everything else stops while the beach ball spins.

Apple + Intel + Linux

It was once unthinkable that Apple would switch to Intel CPUs, but Apple's engineers with NeXT roots have been developing OS X (then called OpenStep) on Intel hardware longer than they have on PowerPC.

When Steve Jobs started NeXT, he soon realized that no existing OS matched his vision and determined that the Mach kernel (a variant of Unix) would be the best foundation for his new object-oriented operating system. That was 1986, and the NeXT computers ran their Unix-derived OS on Motorola 68030 CPUs - the same used in Macs.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds began writing the Linux kernel, a Unix-like operating system designed for the popular, powerful Intel 80386 CPU. The first version of Linux was released in Sept. 1991, and since then programmers around the world have contributed to extending and improving Linux. This is arguably the most extensive and successful open source project to date.

By 1992 NeXT has begun porting NeXTstep to Intel CPUs, and there was another project to port it to PowerPC. However, that project was halted when NeXTstep 3.1 (a.k.a. NeXTstep 486) was released in 1993.

NeXT's next project was separating the rest of the operating system from the kernel, which helped create OpenStep.

NeXT was committed to the Mach kernel five years before Linus Torvalds began his OS, and it took a while before Linux began to approach the maturity of other Unix-like operating systems, so there would have been no reason for NeXT to consider switching from Mach.

In the 14 years since the first Linux release, Linux has grown into a full-fledged operating system that has been tweaked and optimized by a host of programmers - and their work reviewed by other programmers. In fact, Linux is so robust that IBM has embraced it.

Now let's put the pieces together. NeXT already learned how to put their interface on both Mach and Solaris kernels. Linux has grown into the most popular non-Microsoft operating system on x86 hardware, but it's held back by dozens of distributions and two different GUIs.

Mach: OS X's Achilles' Heel

What if Apple were to build the equivalent of OpenStep for Linux? That is, take the whole of OS X and build it around a Linux kernel instead of Mach. (This would be the exact opposite of MkLinux, Apple's project to build a PowerPC version of Linux on the Mach microkernel that Apple abandoned after they acquired NeXT.)

The problem with Mach is that microkernels are inefficient because of all the communication taking place between different parts of the operating system. A monolithic kernel is more efficient because processes don't have to move in and out of the kernel. The current Wikipedia article puts it thus:

Microkernels generally underperform in comparison to traditional designs, sometimes dramatically. This is due in large part to the overhead of moving in and out of the kernel, a context switch, in order to move data between the various applications and servers. It was originally believed that careful tuning could reduce this overhead dramatically, but by the mid-90s most researchers had given up.

It seems sensible to move OS X to a more efficient kernel than Mach (Apple has been making Mach more efficient since 10.0 shipped), but there's one big obstacle: Avie Tevanian, one of the developers of the Mach kernel, worked at NeXT and came to Apple with Steve Jobs. Egos and personalities seem to mean a lot at Apple these days, so unless Tevanian were to become convinced that microkernel architecture is hampering OS X and then convince Jobs of that truth, change is unlikely.

We can dream, can't we? Dreams of the best kernel and the best GUI working together. An OS and installers that are truly ready for the masses. No more beach balls of death. Real competition for Microsoft Windows present and future.

The transition to Intel would be the perfect time to make the switch.