Matters Unix

It looks like last week’s O’Reilly Mac OS X Conference was a resounding success, and the entire Daring Fireball staff is more than a little bitter that we didn’t get to attend.

Given O’Reilly’s pedigree, it’s no surprise that the Unix side of OS X got much of the attention. And for good reason — if you like Unix, you should love Mac OS X. But one major theme from the conference (and from tech journalism coverage of Mac OS X in general) strikes me as off-base: that the influx of Unix developers to Mac OS X is greatly improving the Mac ecosystem.

The thinking goes something like this:

  • Many clever programmers use Unix systems, because they like the development tools.
  • Many of these Unix developers have switched (or are switching) to Mac OS X.
  • Therefore, there are now more clever programmers developing Mac software.

You can see this argument at the end of this conference summary by Daniel H. Steinberg, when he writes:

Combine the strong relationships with ISVs with the sexy hardware, and open source software that is bringing the developers back to the platform, and a lot of cool software is being hacked out.

Where this line of thinking goes wrong is by equating “developers who use Mac OS X” with “Mac developers”. They are not the same thing. Mac software is not simply software that runs on Mac OS X.

If I’m wrong, then answer me this: Where is all the great new Mac software ported from Unix?

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of great new software for Mac OS X. There is. But it’s not ported from Unix. There’s some old NeXT software that’s made the transition, like the stuff from the Omni Group and Apple’s own Mac OS X development tools. And there’s new software, written specifically for Mac OS X, such as Watson, NetNewsWire, and the haxies from Unsanity.

Most of the major apps for Mac OS X aren’t new at all. They’re long-standing Mac apps. Adobe’s and Macromedia’s graphic suites. BBEdit. Microsoft Office. AppleWorks. Script Debugger. DragThing.

But where are the Unix apps? You might make an argument that Mozilla counts. But Mozilla runs just as well on Mac OS 9 as it does Mac OS X, which belies the argument that Unix mojo is making Mac OS X a better place to live. And then there’s Chimera, which is kicking ass and taking names — but the whole point of Chimera is that it’s not a port of the Mozilla browser, but instead a brand new Mac OS X app built around the Gecko rendering engine.

Next to Mozilla, the biggest-name Unix app for the masses is OpenOffice. And OpenOffice for Mac OS X is a steaming pile of shit. It’s not just that it looks like crap (where by “crap”, I mean “Windows 95”), it feels like crap, too. That there exist plans to turn OpenOffice into a genuine Mac app at some point in the future is no consolation — open source vaporware is no better than commercial vaporware.

At least OpenOffice is free. The scoundrels at MathWorks released a “Mac version” of Matlab which:

  • Requires an X Server (they’re nice enough to let you choose between XDarwin and OroborOSX).
  • Doesn’t run on Jaguar.
  • Costs $1,900 (!).

And you thought Word 6 was a crummy port?

Getting an X-Windows app to run on Mac OS X and calling it a “Mac version” is like putting a Mercedes hood ornament on a Chevy Malibu and calling it “my Benz”.

The Mac is not just another GUI. It’s the GUI, the one with high standards for interface design and usability. Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines are not hints. They are rules.

Yes, Unix matters to Mac OS X. But where it matters is under the hood, not at the application level.

Further Reading

Matthew Thomas: Why Free Software usability tends to suck.

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