Point, Counterpoint: Mac OS X Is Great for Fortysomething Unix Hackers

Paul Graham — renowned Lisp programmer, essayist, godfather of using Bayesian-ish statistical analysis to identify spam, and, now, co-founder of a venture firm for early-stage startups — earlier this week published a piece titled “Return of the Mac”, which starts:

All the best hackers I know are gradually switching to Macs. My friend Robert said his whole research group at MIT recently bought themselves Powerbooks. These guys are not the graphic designers and grandmas who were buying Macs at Apple’s low point in the mid 1990s. They’re about as hardcore OS hackers as you can get.

The reason, of course, is OS X. Powerbooks are beautifully designed and run FreeBSD. What more do you need to know?

And so I suppose we can assume Graham doesn’t know Tim Bray — search expert, XML co-creator and hacker, “Director of Web Technologies” at Sun, and essayist/weblogger — who, earlier this week, claimed he was considering switching away from the Mac, or, as he put it, unswitching.

All the Hackers

On the surface, Graham’s piece seems like a nice pat on the back to the Mac platform. But there’s an implication in his piece that the world’s most prodigiously talented programmers are only now switching (or switching back) to the Mac, when in fact some of them have been here all along. GUI programming is hard, and for GUI programmers, the Mac has always been, in Brent Simmons’s words, “The Show”.

I.e. the idea that by the mid-’90s the Mac user base had been whittled down to “graphic designers and grandmas” is demonstrably false — someone must have been writing the software the designers and grandmas were using, no? — but I don’t think it’s worth pressing the point, because I suspect it wasn’t really what Graham meant to imply. And the main thrust of his point is true: there is a certain class of hackers — your prototypical Unix nerds — who not only weren’t using Macs a decade ago, but whose antipathy toward Macs was downright hostile. And it is remarkable that these hackers are now among Mac OS X’s strongest adherents.

It’s another sign of Mac OS X’s dual nature: from the perspective of your typical user (and particularly long-time Mac users), it is the Mac OS with a modern Unix architecture encapsulated under the hood; from the perspective of the hackers Graham writes of, it is Unix with a vastly superior GUI.

A year ago I wrote “Ronco Spray-On Usability” in response to Eric S. Raymond’s call-to-arms for better usability in open source desktop user-interface design. Addressing this issue of Mac OS X users immigrating from Unix-land, I wrote:

[…] Most of the talented developers still using desktop Linux are either cheapskates or free-software political zealots.

This isn’t to say desktop Linux isn’t growing in use. It is, and will continue to. But it’s growing at the bottom end of the market — cheap $400 computers from Wal-Mart. That’s a market where software usability is not a key feature.

My crack about “cheapskates and free-software political zealots” being the only developers left using open source desktop systems struck a nerve in the Slashdot crowd, prompting me to address it in a follow-up:

I heard from Linux users who claim to be neither cheapskates nor political zealots, but who have no intention of switching to Mac OS X, under any circumstances, ever. The reasons vary, but common ones include:

  • Mac OS X does not have an option for “focus follows mouse”.
  • Mac OS X does not allow you to use a different window manager.
  • You can’t change the way Mac OS X looks without resorting to unsupported hacks.

But the particular reasons don’t really matter. It all boils down to the fact that most aspects of Mac OS X are not designed to be configurable or replaceable; they are designed to be usable, and to fit in with the design of the rest of the system.

They’re also designed to work specifically with Apple’s own hardware — which many of these “I’m not a cheapskate but I don’t want to pay for Apple hardware” types refuse to recognize as a huge usability advantage for Mac OS X.

I didn’t say “Unix nerds” are switching to Mac OS X in droves; I said “Unix nerds who care about usability”. People who want a Unix system that just works, so they can get on with their real work — those are the ones who are switching. As opposed to Unix nerds whose interest is the computer itself, and who want to tinker with it at any and every level — i.e. Unix nerds who do not care about usability.

That was written a year ago, and I think the trend has only accelerated since then. I think this is the point that Graham is trying to make. But as astute and insightful as Graham is, I think he misstates the primary reason for the Mac’s resurgent popularity amongst his hacker friends. Graham writes:

If you want to attract hackers to write software that will sell your hardware, you have to make it something that they themselves use. It’s not enough to make it “open.” It has to be open and good.

And open and good is what Macs are again, finally. The intervening years have created a situation that is, as far as I know, without precedent: Apple is popular at the low end and the high end, but not in the middle. My seventy year old mother has a Mac laptop. My friends with PhDs in computer science have Mac laptops. And yet Apple’s overall market share is still small.

The problem hackers had with Mac OS 7-9 wasn’t that it was bad — but that it wasn’t good for the tasks they cared about. And in a hacker’s mindset, if a computer isn’t good for his particular brand of hacking, that computer isn’t good, period.

The core difference between Mac OS X and the old Mac OS isn’t that it is flat-out better, but that it is good in (mostly) all the ways the old Mac OS was good,1 and but is also good in entirely different ways. It is the Mac and it is Unix, at the same time.

The appeal to hackers is obvious: as users, they get the Mac’s superior desktop apps (iTunes, iMovie, etc.); as programmers, they get their favorite development tools: Perl, Python, Ruby, Apache, MySQL, and all the way down the Unix tool chain.

The primary group of programmers who were attracted to the old Mac OS were those who wanted to write Mac software: application software and other projects meant for use by regular Mac users. Mac OS X, on the other hand, is attractive to those same programmers, for the same reasons, and also attractive to all sorts of other programmers as well — most especially to those writing software for the web.

And even for those utterly Unix-stained souls who don’t care a whit about the Mac side of Mac OS X, there are numerous reasons to prefer Mac OS X over Linux as a desktop OS. Not the least of which is the tight integration with Apple’s hardware, especially beneficial if you want a laptop.

In short, Mac OS X is a deeply appealing platform for a very large share of the overall hacker market. It’s the intersection of almost everything that’s good about the old Mac OS and the open source Linux desktops.


Which deep appeal makes Tim Bray’s “unswitch” diatribe all the more perplexing. There’s no need to bother pointing out to Bray that a PowerBook running Mac OS X is the best way to run a Unix-style OS on a laptop — he wrote that argument himself three years ago, when he bought his first PowerBook:

But recently I’ve noticed that a lot of my grizzled contemporaries, and quite a few younger open-source luminaries, are starting to carry Macintoshes. The reasons seem to be:

  • With the arrival of OS X, a Mac is actually a full-featured Unix system.

  • It has a well-thought-through, consistent, and rather beautiful user interface that requires neither sending money to Redmond nor editing Xt resource files nor knowing what a “termcap” is.

  • It has really, really, REALLY fast suspend/resume. Open the laptop up and by the time your fingers are on the keyboard it’s ready for you to start typing. The amount of time the entire human population spends sitting in front of Windows boxes waiting for them to be ready to work is probably in aggregate worth the GDP of a medium-sized country.

What’s changed since then? Has something better come along? Apparently that’s not it:

My big gripe with Apple, of course, is their cult of hermetic secrecy. We at Sun and our esteemed competitors up in Redmond are engaged in a grand experiment: what happens when you dramatically increase a company’s transparency? Initial results are pretty good for both of us. Apple’s approach is of course, exactly the opposite.

Oh, well, of course. Rather than picking a system based on its quality or suitability for your needs, pick it based on the level of “secrecy” maintained by the company that makes it.

What secrets, I wonder, does Bray feel Apple would be better off not keeping? Details of upcoming major updates to Mac OS X? Oh, wait, they did reveal those, last June at WWDC, along with regular seeds of Mac OS X 10.4 as it progressed through beta testing.

As for Sun’s grand experiment in transparency, I’m sure Apple is indeed quite interested in generating the same degree of buzz and publicity around their product announcements as surround Sun’s. I mean, could speculation regarding the announcements at the next Solaris trade show be running any hotter?

Bray continues:

[Apple controls] the message, nothing that’s not part of the message can be said, nobody is allowed to say anything except for Steve, and they’ll sue your ass if you step out of bounds.

Whom have they sued for merely “stepping out of bounds”? Or is “stepping out of bounds” the same thing as “breaking the law”?

That court case is really irritating; the judge cleverly side-stepped the issue of whether free-speech guarantees apply to bloggers by finding on the basis that this wasn’t about free speech, it was about trade secrets. Should Apple win, each and every player in the financial industry who’s trying to do something sleazy or unscrupulous will be able to claim that their accounting practices or transfer pricing or whatever are “trade secrets” and litigate aggressively against anyone, journalist or otherwise, who tries to get at the truth. Enron’s “special-purpose entities”? Trade secrets. Worldcom’s revenue-recognition policy? Trade secret. Write about it and you’re in court.

Perhaps Bray wouldn’t find Judge Kleinberg’s ruling so irritating if he’d actually bother to read it. (I’m hosting a PDF copy here.) Kleinberg specifically addresses the exact scenarios raised by Bray. On p. 12 of the ruling (emphasis added):

At the hearing the Court specifically asked what public interest was served by publishing private, proprietary product information that was ostensibly stolen and turned over to those with no business reason for getting it. Movants’ response was to again reiterate the self-evident interest of the public in Apple, rather than justifying why citizens have a right to know the private and secret information of a business entity, be it Apple, H-P, a law firm, a newspaper, Coca-Cola, a restaurant, or anyone else. Unlike the whistleblower who discloses a health, safety, or welfare hazard affecting all, or the government employee who reveals mismanagement or worse by our public officials, the movants are doing nothing more than feeding the public’s insatiable desire for information.

Bray continues:

I don’t know, maybe traditional message management will work for Apple; arguably transparency matters less when you’re selling Kool Toys to Kool Kids is, as opposed to selling long-term infrastructure bets to businesspeople.

I wonder which company, Sun or Apple, is considered a better long-term bet to investors these days? If only we could see a graph comparing their stock prices over the last two years.

(I don’t mean to disparage the quality of Sun’s hardware or software, but I can’t resist the stock-price pot-shot. It’s just so weird to see a guy like Tim Bray — who generally comes across as being wise, temperate, and clever — resort to childish “Kool Kids” name-calling.)

Bray then goes on to explain why he switched from Safari to Firefox — seemingly random SPODs, and griping about the fact that you’re never more than one ⌘Q away from losing your entire browser session. Here, at least, Bray and I are on the same page. But as noted by Bray himself in a follow-up, one can guard against accidentally quitting Safari and losing a bunch of open browser windows by changing the menu key shortcut for the Quit menu item, using the “Keyboard & Mouse” System Preferences panel.

But feeling the need to switch from Safari is a far cry from feeling the need to switch from Mac OS X. Using Firefox doesn’t make you less of a Mac OS X user.

Bray also goes on to complain about his PowerBook’s screen (which is a better screen than the one in his first PowerBook three years ago, which he cited then as one of the best reasons to get a PowerBook) and performance (he wants a new laptop that’s “twice as fast”).

Bray concludes:

On the other hand, maybe Apple will dial back the infofascism and figure out how to ship a fast laptop with a good screen.

And I’ll just point out that “infofascism” seems like an awfully loaded term considering the rather hollow charges Bray has levied. Perhaps there is a case to be made against Mac OS X, or against PowerBooks, or against Apple Computer. But this certainly isn’t it.

I was half-tempted to dredge up Bray’s argument from last year that Apple should “go open source” (Bray wants Apple to release the source to apps like Mail, Safari, and the Finder) just to have something worth debating. At least with his “go open source” argument, he, well, argues.

Here, though, all we’re left with is that Bray thinks Apple is too “secretive” and so maybe he won’t use their computers any more. Which secrets Apple shouldn’t be keeping, or how they’re any more secretive now than they were three years ago when Bray first came on board, who knows?

  1. With certain notable and specific user-interface-related exceptions, such as, say, the Finder. Exceptions notwithstanding, however, the Mac remains a platform where developers are committed to consistent, intuitive user-interface design. ↩︎