It is now one full week that I have had my MacBook. In this week I have come to learn what makes a Mac special and what makes a Mac an infuriating machine to own. Let’s begin with the infuriating.
There is no such thing as Mac software, at least in the retail channel. Here in Montreal we have two major big box chains, Future Shop and Best Buy. Best Buy actually owns Future Shop. Both chains sell Macs and the following three pieces of software:
- Microsoft Office
- Roxio Toaster
That’s it. No accounting, no graphics, no web design, and certainly no games. A few years ago I used to advise people considering a Mac to bring a tape measure to a big box store to measure the shelf space for Mac software. There used to be at least one shelf but no more. Now there is nothing.
Of course there is software for a Mac but just not in the retail channel. That probably explains why so many people who buy a Mac put Windows on it and why most people ask me if I plan to put Windows on it. I don’t. There is one Apple store in the region and another about to open in downtown Montreal. They will likely have software at full retail pricing.
The next infuriating issue with the Mac is that it is not friendly at all. Its a Unix box with a stunning veneer. But it consists of numerous configuration files that control its operation. As an example, it is easy to turn on the web server. I mean easy if you know that web sharing means web server. It comes with PHP. But PHP is not activated and so the httpd.conf file has to be edited.
I have taught courses in Linux and so I know where this file should be. But Apple’s veneer only shows you a subsection of your drive. I could get to it from a Terminal window but not from the Finder. Imagine the uproar if Microsoft decided to hide a portion of your disk from its users.
A little research uncovered the following command:
defaults write com.apple.Finder AppleShowAllFiles YES
And then the full filesystem appears in all its glory, which explains why Apple hides it. Unix/Linux was designed for Unix/Linux geeks. It may or may not have a better kernel than Vista but you could never teach your grandmother to use it. So Apple created the Mac veneer. To expand the veneer analogy, its like buying shelving with a beautiful and rich oak veneer but only on one side. As long as you look at the top of the shelf its beautiful. Look on the bottom of the shelf and its Unix/Linx, warts and all.
So I found httpd.conf and opened it in TextEdit. But I could not save the file because I did not have sufficient permission. It would not even let me elevate my permission with a user access control dialog. So I figured I would access the file’s properties and improve my permission. Guess what, I did not have sufficient privileges to do that. But I was able to take ownership of the file. Great, that should do it.
But no, that was not the way to do it. Turns out the permission problem existed at the directory level. I needed to give ‘everyone’ read and write to the directory. So I did and was now able to edit the file.
The final step was to create the classic php test file containing the one line:
<? php.info(); ?>
I called up TextEdit, entered the single line and gave the command to save. But there was no plain text file save. I could save it as html and so I figured html is just plain text and so I saved it. It got an extension of .html but I renamed the file to just info.php. I copied it into my Sites folder, started up web sharing, and Safaried to my page. But all I got was:
<? php.info(); >
in my browser. I went to bed.
The next day I opened the file in TextEdit and noticed I forgot the closing question mark. I fixed it, fired up web sharing and got:
<? php.info(); ?>
What the f@%&! Am I going to have to call an Apple Genius?
While searching for internet for useful software I cam across something called TextWrangler. One of its features was the ability to access hidden folders and files. It was freeware and so I downloaded and installed it. I undid my Finder hack and then used TextWrangler to re-examine httpd.conf. It was fine. Then I used it to examine info.php. What i discovered was that TextEdit had wrapped my one line of php into a proper xhtml file. This file would then just display what I typed. PHP saw a plain html file and never saw the tokens (<? ?>) that defined the code. I stripped all the xhtml away and the PHP script worked. I did subsequently learn that I could tell TextEdit to work in plain text mode but I needed to change mode rather than just tell the Save command to save as plain text.
Granted, your grandmother would likely never want to enable PHP on the Apache web server. But my students at Dawson College or Concordia University might. Where was the Apple veneer?
So in reality what is infuriating about the Apple is what is infuriating about Unix/Linux in general. You are either an uber geek or you run Windows.
So why the hell did I get a Mac? Because I am an uber geek. I have been frustrated with the poor quality of Linux distributions ranging from Red Hat to Ubuntu. What Apple does get right is that they appear to have taken ownership of their flavour of Unix. At least I hope so. And when that veneer is available it makes KDE or GNOME look like a Commodore 64 interface.
And I just discovered that you can have spaces in file names!
So other than confirming my own inflated image of myself why did I get a Mac? The first reason was monetary. My main employer, Dawson College, makes a small taxable subsidy available to teachers to assist in the purchase of a laptop. Its awarded by lottery and after losing the lottery last semester I won this time around. The amount of the lottery put the price of the Macbook in the same range as comparable Windows based laptops.
The next reason was the fact that from a technical standpoint the Mac is the best designed and built laptop on the market. It’s even considered the best Windows laptop on the market. Sorry HP, Acer, Dell, and the rest of you. The laptops you make are crap with usually less than an hour of battery power. I have a Windows laptop but it was never really portable and certainly not reliable unless it was plugged it. I wanted a laptop I could keep with me all the time and not just for special occasions.
Finally, my specialty as an instructor is Java. I use Eclipse and Netbeans, Tomcat and Glassfish, MySQL, and many other open source tools and components. They all work on the Mac. MySQL was a bit of a problem because it is an ‘outside the veneer’ application but is does work.
So I got a Mac so I could truly have my computer with me all the time. A computer powerful enough to to run my complete stack of software and do it for four hours on a single battery charge.
Next time I’ll describe how some clever lawyer could possibly make a lot of money by proving that most of those Mac vs, PC commercials are bold faced lies. For example, my Mac asks me for permission to do things every much as often as my Vista machine.