Linux to Mac

Is Mac OS X 'a Better Linux than Linux'?

- 2007.11.28 - Tip Jar

Amid the buzz surrounding the latest Mac OS X release (Leopard), a claim was made that OS X is a better Linux than Linux. Let's shine a light on that idea from a couple of different angles.

Different Goals

The article by Alexander Wolfe declares that Steve Jobs had done a better job marketing open source software and building a more successful operating system than Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. That analogy assumes they had similar goals, something that has never been true. Jobs aims to monetize technology, while Torvalds wants to improve it. Jobs tends to focus on the human interface, while Torvalds tends to focus on the machine interface. The contrast between the two personalities - and their goals - is so stark it is hard to find much commonality.

Since commercial success was not a goal of Torvalds, it seems odd to make that comparison. While Steve is the CEO of Apple, Linus is not the CEO of Linux. Their positions and spheres of influence are dramatically different, and comparing their respective achievements in commercial terms is not very useful.

Different Strengths

The technology and licensing behind OS X and Linux highlight different strengths. When comparing OS X to a Linux distribution, you'll find that the hardware integration and focus on the whole experience makes OS X a much more polished desktop system. Linux has two major desktop interfaces, GNOME and KDE, and dozens of smaller players in the window manager space. You have more choice in the Linux desktop world, but none of your choices are going to match Aqua.

On the other hand, Linux offers you more flexible and portable systems than anything offered by Apple. You have a wider selection of hardware as well as highly customized distributions, such as dedicated routers/firewalls, flash drive systems, Live CDs, embedded systems, real-time systems, etc.

Then you have the freedom factor. Linux (the kernel) and most of the application software that runs on it uses the General Public License (GPL), meaning you are free to view and modify the source code of the programs - and even distribute modified versions. In most cases, Linux distributions are completely free. Zero cost. For many people, that trumps the Genius Bar and the no hassle hardware integration.

Yet that freedom comes with a price - your time. If you add in the time investment to make Linux work smoothly, the care and feeding of your system, it can start to look expensive. A great deal depends on which flavor of Linux Kool-Aid you drink. Ubuntu is the closest thing to a self managing Linux system, while one of my long time favorites, Slackware, demands more of its users.

Value is in the eye of the beholder

I appreciate OS X as a desktop and the fruits of a stunning GUI on top of the BSD/Mach plumbing. However, if you value the tightest security or the most freedom, Linux may be more satisfying. I still prefer Linux on the server. The best approach may be to do what I do and run both. LEM

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Keith Winston is a recent Mac convert after five years of Linux on the desktop. He also writes for and created CommandLineMac to focus on the Unix-y power of the Mac. If you find Keith's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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