But it’s not Unix!

Picture of Matt WeinbergerA friend recently posted on Facebook this video in which tech columnist Matt Weinberger explains, in a minute and a half or so, why he switched to a Surface Book laptop running Windows 10 and never looked back. The main reasons are more new games (many games don’t even make it onto the Mac or iOS) and such features as being able to highlight things with a stylus, which Apple only offers on the iPad Pro which does not run desktop applications. Towards the end, he concedes that, yes, it is Windows and he has experienced his fair share of glitches and bugs that require a restart. I’ve been a Mac user on and off since 2004 and mostly on since 2011 and the thing that stops me going back to Windows is really quite simple: it’s not Unix.

I’m less of a geek than I used to be. I mostly use my computers (I have two Macs and an iPad Pro) for blogging, web surfing, watching TV online and email, including filing timesheets for my work. I still maintain an application (and use it for most of the entries on this blog) but I have less time for that than I did ten years ago, let alone in 2003 when I started work on it as an abortive college project. Still, a Unix base is vital for cross-platform software development: the industry standard command line shells, the compilers, editors and so on are all written to run on Unix and the conventions all come from the Unix world. Microsoft is putting off a lot of developers with its proprietary OS and developer tools. Linux is still the best platform by far when it comes to managing the software on your computer: it all comes from a central archive, updated regularly, and if you want to publish your own, you can set up your own archive and users can set the software management tools to download from it. Both Mac and Windows have such archives available, but they’re much less well-developed. Linux is the ideal platform for development; you can download what tools you need from the archives, while on the Mac you have to download an entire DVD-sized package that covers iOS development as well, just to build software for your Mac. But both are better than Windows in that regard.

I have strong memories of Windows XP, which although its appearance was nice, was a nightmare for security, while anti-virus software was a dreadful resource hog at a time when the average computer had a single 32-bit processor running at less than 1Ghz, a stark contrast to today’s four-core 2.5Ghz processors. I’ve used Windows 7 and never installed anti-virus software and never had any problems, although I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone. In 2012 I bought an Acer laptop which came with Windows 7 and made the mistake of upgrading it to Windows 8, then attempting an upgrade to Windows 8.1. It made my laptop, which by then was only a year old (a fairly cheap Acer, though hardly bargain basement), unusable and I ended up reformatting my hard drive and installing Linux on the whole thing. The next year I bought a MacBook Pro (the one that I sold to my aunt last Christmas) and the Acer went back in the case and has hardly come out since. Some might argue that Windows 10 is the new Windows 7 and that I shouldn’t be prejudiced by the upgrade disaster, but all that tells me is that Microsoft has produced a decent Windows before and then ruined it, and will probably do the same again.

I have no problems with Windows’s user interface itself. It’s elegant enough that all the major Linux desktops for a while copied it to a greater or lesser extent; KDE in the mid-2000s had only one or two elements that weren’t copied from Windows and you could easily style it to look like Windows. My problem is the underpinnings. If Microsoft ever wants to tempt me back to Windows, it will have to produce a Unix-based version of it which runs Windows and Unix software. A bolt-on “Linux subsystem” featuring a command line and a few utilities is not good enough. Unix has 50 years of history, has run on mainframes, minicomputers, micros, laptops and mobile phones (both Android and iOS are Unix-type operating systems); its source, with the exception of some System V remnants, is open to scrutiny, unlike that of Windows which remains a secret. I can’t remember the last time any of my Macs crashed or required rebooting when running Mac OS, although some apps have crashed (Safari currently has serious reliability problems, but is easily replaceable).

I realise these details don’t bother a lot of users, and they might not even be aware of them. But for me, games and a stylus are not essential features; reliability, interoperability and industry-standard command-line and development tools are. The Mac has enough applications (including Microsoft Office) to be more than adequate for my needs; I’ve recently spent a lot of money on Mac and iOS gear and can’t justify just switching and probably won’t get a review copy for the purpose; Surface Pros and Surface Books cost between £750 and £2,650 in the UK, so are easily as expensive as a high-end iPad or MacBook, and as long as videos promoting Windows continue to say “oh yeah, it crashes and I have to reboot it from time to time”, I’ll stick with my Mac. (And as for the comment that “who knows what the Mac will look like in another year”: it still looks like itself after 15 years; every new major Windows release since Vista, except 7, has been unrecognisable from the last.)

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