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Switching Back to Desktop Linux

by chromatic
06/01/2006

Switching Back

A few years ago, I bought my first laptop, a 15-inch PowerBook. It was also my first Apple machine.

I had used Linux on my desktop exclusively for several years, but at that point did not want to go through the pain of tracking down the precise revision of a very specific laptop brand to find one that would work with Linux. (I also refuse to pay the Windows tax, as I would and do not use Windows.)

Through work, I received the opportunity for a sizable discount on a new PowerBook. Mac OS X 10.2 had recently come out and my Mac-using friends claimed that it was much more powerful and usable than previous versions. (Many of my friends still pined for the performance of Classic, especially on older hardware.)

I knew that Linux/PPC was one of the better-maintained non-x86 ports. Apple's hardware impressed me with its quality as well. It is certainly easier for free software developers to produce drivers for well-chosen, high-quality components. (Many other laptop manufacturers are less picky about changing components within a product line, which gives free software developers and users fits.)

I kept my Linux desktop, but moved most of my daily work to the laptop. I also repartitioned my hard drive and reinstalled Mac OS X to give myself space to use Linux/PPC. I tried to get used to Mac OS X for six months, but when a new version of XFree86 came out and supported my video card fully, I finally switched away from Mac OS X.

Why? There are plenty of reasons, most of them related to my primary goal.

What I Wanted

I started using Linux in 1996 or 1997. Before that point, most of my PC experience was with DOS and Windows 3.1. I had some experience with Windows 95, but I was familiar with the command line.

I switched to a Linux desktop at home in late 1998 or early 1999. Though I've occasionally used other Unixes and even Windows at specific jobs, I've done all of my work with a free Unix desktop for several years.

My goal in buying the PowerBook was to continue working as normal but to be able to travel. That is, I wanted to do the same work with the same or equivalent applications in the same ways. I borrowed an iBook from a friend for a couple of weeks, asked a few other people about their experiences, and believed that Mac OS X could offer me a usable Unix desktop on a portable machine.

My goal wasn't to be able to use Mac OS X-specific software, nor did it have anything to do with any particular user interface. Perhaps my experience would have been different; I can't say.

I don't want to say that Mac OS X is a poor Unix desktop. Plenty of smart people enjoy it. It wasn't right for me, though as a Unix desktop, for several reasons.

What I Disliked About Mac OS X

I don't dislike Mac OS X in general, but it's not the operating system for me. It just didn't work the way I do. Maybe I'm stubborn, but if it takes me twice as long to do something with Mac OS X than it does on Linux and if there's no good way to change that on Mac OS X, I prefer Linux.

Several little frustrations finally combined to convince me that I am more productive with a Linux desktop.

Lack of Customizability

I don't want to have icons on the desktop. I don't even want to see my hard drive on the desktop. I never use it. It is just a distraction -- everything that is visible on my screen should pertain to the task at hand.

I want working virtual desktops. Exposé is not a solution; by the time I've hit enough keys to make Exposé do its thing, watched its animation, and selected the correct application, I could be working with the correct application if I had proper virtual desktops selectable by key combination.

I tried several add-on programs to add virtual desktop support. None of them worked the way I want. (Edge flipping seems to be far beyond what these add-ons can do, though I once added it to an X11 window manager in a couple of hours, having never done it before.) Too many of them had their own weird bugs, like dragging windows between desktops when I only wanted to switch.

It was seriously disconcerting to click on a Terminal.app window in one desktop and have all of the other Terminal windows from all of the other desktops suddenly appear.

I want focus-follows-mouse.

I don't care how many usability studies Apple or Mac fans cite to prove that only babyeaters like these things. This is how I work. I'm most productive this way. I tried. I'm glad it works for you. It didn't work for me.

If I had the option to switch window managers, I would have done so. (I'm sure there's a shareware application somewhere that does this, but I never found one to catch my attention.)

Second-Class Unix Applications

Part-way through my trial, Apple released its own X11 server. I thought this would solve some of the problems I had with useful Unix programs such as OpenOffice.org. I thought perhaps I could even use XTerm to solve my Terminal.app woes.

Unfortunately, the X11 integration was a work in progress. At least, I hope it has progressed.

Apple's secret to the different copy-paste behavior of X11 is to run a separate X11 application that copies information from the two separate clipboards. That is, it's obviously possible to share information between Aqua and X11, but it's obviously not useful enough to do it by default. I don't understand that.

The fonts in OpenOffice.org were nearly unreadable. That surprised me immensely (the fonts on my Linux laptop are very nice, thank you). How could Apple distribute quality fonts for Mac OS X and Aqua and not make them available in X11? At a minimum, wouldn't the Verdana family be useful?

I barely want to mention installing Unix applications. Fink did a reasonable job of working around the lack of a useful package manager, but it was often painfully obvious how much of a workaround it was.

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