Thursday, 3 January 2008

I'm a PC, I'm also a PC

You know, those Apple "I'm a PC, I'm a Mac" adverts really get my goat (for readers outside the UK who may not recognise them, the photo is of comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who do the UK version). Not because I'm a Linux user although, let's face it, these adverts aren't entirely fair to Linux users because, well, there is no-one around to represent Linux, and the number of Linux users is likely to be comparable to the number of Mac users, it's just difficult to tell as many dual-boot with Windows (in my case I have two laptops, one running Kubuntu, the other Vista).

What really annoys me is the way that they make this distinction between a PC and a Mac seem (at least to the non-technical computer user) as if it's a hardware issue. It's most certainly not.

A modern Mac uses an Intel chipset, just like a Windows PC, and indeed is quite capable of running Windows. It just doesn't come with Windows preinstalled. If you installed Windows on a Mac, it would have all the same issues as any other Windows PC. It'd be as vulnerable to malware as any other computer.

The only other way in which it differs physically from any other PC is that it looks nice. So do Sony VAIO's, but they're PC's. Therefore, a Mac is a PC.

The advantages Mac users like to emphasise - stability, resistance to malware, and a nice GUI, are all software issues. OS X is essentially a version of FreeBSD that Apple have added a different desktop to. That is where the stability and resistance to malware comes from - its UNIX heritage.

Install Linux on a PC, and it has that same stability and resistance to malware, as Linux is a pretty close copy of UNIX. In fact, Linux is probably more resistant to malware. Partly because it's more diverse, with hundreds of different distros, each subtly different, and partly because the open-source community actively encourages people to find and report bugs and security holes so they can be patched. Yet, apparently that is still a PC, and apparently there is no distinction between that and one running Windows. Or, at least that is how it might seem to a non-technical user.

They also like to champion the fact that everything "just works" with a Mac. Well, if the manufacturer also creates the OS, then they aren't going to include anything that doesn't work, are they? Under those conditions, any OS will work with all the hardware. And I'm pretty sure there's plenty of third-party hardware you can find that WON'T work with a Mac. Dell are working closely with the Ubuntu community so I would expect that over time you'll find Dell's with preinstalled Ubuntu come increasingly close to matching Mac's in terms of "just works" functionality.

For that matter, it would probably be possible to run OS X on any PC with an Intel chipset. Would that make it a Mac? No, it wouldn't. But it would have exactly the same advantages in terms of stability and resistance to malware as a Mac.

The other thing Mac users like to champion is how nice the GUI is. Well, that's purely subjective. Here in the Linux community we have a good example - we have two main desktop environments, Gnome and KDE (yes, I know there's others such as Xfce, Fluxbox etc, but I'm keeping it simple). If one was outright better than the other, then everyone would use that one. They don't, and indeed disagreements about which is better are quite vocal. Therefore, the one GUI is not going to suit everyone.

I'm actually really trying to sound reasonable here, because I am quite peed off with some trolls on Digg who spam every single Linux-related article with "Just Get a Mac". I'm not into downright fanboyism - I love Linux, and I do think everyone should try it, but ultimately there are many people for whom it would not be right, and if they gave it a good try and didn't like it, then that's fine. I'm not going to harass you about it.

If I was recommending an OS to someone, I would sell it on its advantages, I wouldn't spout some advertising slogan over and over - that does not a convincing argument make, and just makes you look a prat - imagine if someone tried to sell you on Kit Kats by posting comments on any Digg articles about chocolate bars saying, "Have a break, have a Kit Kat" - you'd think they were an idiot! Linux would come top of my list because you can install it on any hardware, there are plenty of really easy distros such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint and PCLinuxOS which are probably easier than Windows to use. But it may not be suitable for some things, and I wouldn't recommend it for someone who wouldn't get on well with it.


If you want to play the latest games then Linux is not for you (although it would be good if loads of games were available for Linux, since many gamers like to customise their PC and really soup it up to get the most out of it - then put a standardised Windows install on it? How much better would it be if they could use Gentoo and customise their OS to get the best performance out of it the same way they did their PC?). Equally, there are some things that a Mac does do best - Photoshop is a good example. I'm certainly not going to recommend Linux for someone who won't get on well with it - I'd happily recommend Windows or a Mac to someone if I genuinely felt they would be better off using that. I wouldn't dream of trying to get them to use my favourite Linux distro just because I liked it.

I recently converted a friend to Linux, but he was interested in trying it because he'd heard me say about how much I liked it. I gave a good hard think about the problems I had when I started out and how much easier it would have been if I had known what distros to try. I finally recommended he try Linux Mint as it's easy to use, and doesn't require arcane knowledge to get things like MP3 and DVD playback going, and is also well-supported due to being based on Ubuntu, and has a nice GUI. He really likes it. But if I had tried to push Kubuntu, he might not have liked that, because even though I love it, it probably wasn't the right OS for him.

We in the Linux community have our own reasons for not choosing Macs. Typical ones may include:
  • We just escaped from Microsoft's vendor lock-in, why would we want Apple to lock us in instead?
  • We value free software (both in the free speech and free beer senses, and although Apple do use some free software, they're not terribly good in terms of contributing to the free software community, whereas Red Hat or Canonical are)
  • It's fun - I've heard Linux compared to a Lego car, because you have to spend time configuring it to get it just right, whereas other OS's are already set up the way Microsoft or Apple wanted it to be set up - wouldn't you be annoyed if you got a Lego set and opened the box to find someone had put it together for you?
There's no doubt many other reasons people have for choosing Linux over a Mac. I'm not going to go into the ones about the Cult of Mac and things like that, because I do have friends who use Macs.

But that's a little off-topic. My point is this: A Mac is a PC. Don't pretend otherwise. Perhaps these adverts should be "I'm Windows. I'm OS X." That would be far more honest.