The Practical Mac

OS X and the Future of Linux

A 'Best of the Practical Mac' Column

- 2002.02.19 - Tip Jar

I have recently read several commentaries which predict the demise of Linux as a result of the release of Mac OS X. I disagree. I believe the popularity of Mac OS X gives Linux a renewed life.

The pundits seem to believe that since OS X is a well-designed, easy to use consumer GUI for a Unix OS, Linux has been made irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of threatening Linux, OS X enhances it.

Linux, like Unix, is a command-line OS. In its "pure" form, all control is done from a command prompt. No mouse, no pretty graphics, no windows (the kind with a capital "W" or otherwise) - just character-based, incredibly stable computing power. Almost since Linus Torvalds put the finishing touches on the first incarnation of the Linux operating system, others have been attempting to fashion a user-friendly front-end for Linux. Two of the most popular are KDE and Gnome. They give Linux a graphical interface similar to the Macintosh or Windows.

Both Gnome and KDE have made great strides in making Linux available to the average user. However, one of the problems with these GUI's has been the fact that they can be confusing. Certain commands are not available from the GUI, some are not where the user would expect them to be, and others are in multiple locations.

These perceived shortcomings are not due to lack of programming skill. Some of the most talented programmers in the world have put their touches on Gnome and KDE. I believe the problem is that these programmers are so much more advanced that the average user that they have difficulty discerning what a typical user needs or wants.

Mac OS X was designed by a team of engineers skilled and experienced in dealing with a consumer OS, and, more importantly, consumers. Some of these engineers have been working at Apple for over 20 years. In OS X, or more particularly the Aqua interface, they have put forth an incredibly elegant Unix GUI. The Linux community can pick up a few pointers from the Apple engineers.

Aqua can serve as a roadmap for both Gnome and KDE. I have been using OS X as my primary OS for over six months. I have yet to find any commands which I considered essential and which are not available from the GUI. For instance, changing my network settings is a straightforward, simple process. However, I have thus far been unable to figure out how to change my IP address from fixed to DHCP in Linux.

In our household, we have four Macs and one PC. And the PC runs Caldera Linux. I am a fan of Linux. It is amazing to me that an OS which was developed largely by volunteers (and which is essentially free) can run with unprecedented stability on the same hodgepodge of PC hardware on which another company has spent billions of dollars in R & D costs and is still unable to produce a product which can run for more than a few days without crashing - and it costs hundreds of dollars.

Linux and OS X also know how to play well together. Despite claims that Windows 2000 included native support for networking with Macs (and clearly installing the correct network protocols), I was unable to get a Windows 2000 PC to see any Macs (OS X or 9) on the network or vice-versa. On the other hand, our Linux PC just showed up as available file servers in OS X with no extraordinary measures on our part. All I have to do is install AppleTalk and Mac name space support, and the NetWare server shows up in the Chooser! But not Windows.

One of the advantages of Linux is that it runs on relatively inexpensive PC hardware and runs well. While there is a fair amount of software available for the platform (Corel WordPerfect Office and Netscape Communicator alone make the platform viable for use on an everyday basis), there needs to be more. While we Mac users like to complain about the lack of software for our platform, anyone who has visited one of the Apple retail stores knows that there is a tremendous selection of Mac software available.

I wish Linux success. I hope the predictions of its demise are premature.

I use Apple computers because I believe the Mac is the most stable, reliable, and easy-to-use platform. When I am working on a deadline, I don't have time to stop and reboot my computer or try to recover from the latest OS crash.

Linux holds the potential for bringing this same stability and reliability to the PC platform. LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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