« A GNU/Linux User's OS X Experience

Aleksa Sarai

apple os x personal rant

24 July 2015


Disclaimer: There may be some coarse language in this blog post. It’s a rant, so that should be expected by nature. If you’re insulted by that, you can fuck right off.

I just want to start out by saying that I did give OS X a chance to impress me. I used my new Macbook (without any GNU/Linux VMs or anything else) as my daily driver for almost a full week. I decided against using VMs, because if you have to supplement your operating system with another (ore useful) operating system then that’s not exactly a good thing.

I also did my best to not be delusional. I am not Apple’s target audience, I like hacking on hardware and software I’ve been given. However, as a sceptic I owe it to myself to at least give something a shot before I knock it. And I did. I really did. So, what’s my opinion on OS X?

I can’t stand it any more. Get me the fuck out of here.

I’m currently writing this blog post inside vim on my Mac. And I’ll admit that the font rendering is nicer than my minimalist GNU/Linux setups. But that’s not a selling point to me. I don’t give a shit how far you can zoom in without seeing pixels. I care about feeling the power of a modern operating system and being able to build any software I want. I cannot do either with OS X.

My Use Case

I only need my operating system to do a few exceptionally simple things:

  1. Be customisable. I want to be able to replace any part of the system I would like, and it should be easy to replace (because if you follow the Unix philosophy, each component is modular and replaceable).

  2. Make it easy to compile, test and run any kind of software I’d like. I’d argue this falls under the essential software freedoms. As a developer, an operating system that makes it hard to build and test the software I am developing is not worth my time.

  3. Be transparent in its workings, be easy to understand in principle (though in practice, it may be quite complicated to understand in its entirety). I want to know how the software I am trusting every day to keep my world running works under the hood.

  4. Should be a separate entity. It should not rely on some third-party service in order to function properly. If I can’t access the internet (or choose to airgap the machine eternally), it should be possible to run all of the software I’d like (and to use all of the features I’d like to) without needing access to online services.

OS X fails to do all of the above things. I’m sure that it’s fine for ordinary people if the above points are not met. But as a developer (and as a lover of free software), these are not negotiable points for me. I will not permit a proprietary swipey operating system to make me forgo my ideals.

The Positives

Before I get too enraged, I should probably cover the (very few) things that OS X does right. It would be disingenuous for me to claim that OS X does everything wrong (though it’s not too far from the truth).

  1. Encryption by default. FileVault means that almost all OS X users automatically are using disk encryption for their data. This is a step in the right direction for public adoption of encryption of all personal data (we are still a long way off though).

  2. Unification. One of the few benefits you have of having an uncustomisable system is that the entire system is (by definition) one unit and can work seamlessly together. While I don’t like the lack of configuration, I do like how things like open and f.lux just work out of the box. GNU/Linux does have xdg-open, but my experience with it has always been quite dodgy.

  3. Pretty nice font rendering. I must admit that getting crisp fonts in GNU/Linux has always been a bit of a pain. That said, for terminal work I like pixelated fonts like dina (unfortunately, that doesn’t work for high pixel density screens like this Macbook). Chrome fonts looks very crisp under OS X, and I’ve had people tell me that my font rendering under GNU/Linux is absolute crap.

Swipey Bullshit

Everyone goes on for hours about how OS X is a “better user experience”. It’s not. It’s literally just a bunch of swipey gestures that get in the way of doing what I’m trying to do. Pinch this, swipe that, turn around in your chair, etc. All so I can switch back to my tmux session and get back to work. FUCK THAT.

As a programmer, I don’t want random novelty bloat that gets boring after the first few hours. Maybe people who have more artsy pursuits might enjoy the mind-numbing stupidity of all of these skin-deep “pretty” animations. But as a scientist and as a programmer, I will never understand why people enjoy such childish things. Computers were originally created to solve real problems, not to distract people from their mundane lives.

Why Customise Perfection?

As an Arch Linux user, I’m used to being able to replace any part of the system with something I prefer (in fact, in Arch, you have to build your system from the bare minimum). That’s a model I much prefer when it comes to computing. I knew going into this that OS X would be different. That should be expected. Even in GNU/Linux systems like Ubuntu, changing components is unreasonably difficult. However, I would never have thought it would be nigh impossible to change any aspect of the system in OS X.

With OS X, I feel like I’m constrained in a box. I can’t change anything (something as rudimentary as changing the background on every workspace is a pain). I can’t change anything (you want to use GCC? Fuck off, we’re in a clangy world now) and I feel like it’s just a bunch of hacks running on top of a BSD-like kernel.

Sure, you get a shittier version of pf, and other BSD features. But you can’t actually use them because OS X makes it hard to do anything. The whole global keyring is one of the most stupid ideas I’ve ever heard of. Just use FreeBSD if you want to use a modern BSD operating system that actually fucking works.

In El Capitan, there’s a new feature called System Integrity Protection. It should be called “System Idiocy Perpetuation”, because it means that (by default) you can’t modify any system files. That goes against the idea of customisation so viscerally that it actually hurts. Sure, it might make sense if it added some security benefits. But you can disable it very trivially if you’re root:

# nvram boot-args="rootless=0"
# reboot

It’s just designed to make it more of a pain to do something as vital as installing custom libraries to your build toolchain. This is an example of the sort of decision that is endemic to a system which is designed to lock you into a software prison.

Botched Package Management

What is the main point of a package manager? If you said something like “to simply and easily consolidate the installation and maintainership of all software on a system to one managed system”, you know more about package management than Apple and the community that uses OS X combined.

Sure, you have Homebrew and MacPorts which sort of work. But the key word in the above description of a package manager is all. A package manager is useless if it doesn’t manage all of the packages on a system (especially if some of the packages that it doesn’t manage are dependencies of packages it does manage).

As a quick aside, yes that means that I completely disagree with the idea behind pip, npm and other such language-specific package managers. It makes server maintainership much more of a pain because you keep adding systems that are gleefully ignorant of one another (pip doesn’t know if a new version of a package needs to be patched in order to run on your system, and your package manager definitely doesn’t know what the hell pip is doing behind its back).

But anyway, back to OS X. OS X has the App Store, which (for some unknown reason) also handles operating system updates. I don’t really agree with the idea of an app store either, but that’s a separate issue. The fact that you need to log into iCloud in order to install an update or program is stupid. I understand that it’s necessary in order to implement DRM paid software, but I’m not paying for updates or gratis software.

Horrible Developer Workflow

I mentioned this earlier, but most developers use virtual machines in order to properly use OS X. The very notion that your operating system is so lacking that it is easier to just run a virtual operating system to fill the gaps shows you that there is clearly something very wrong with this model.

If you want to build and test your software, you have to run it inside Vagrant (which is actually just a wrapper of VirtualBox). Why is this the case? Well, it’s because OS X sucks as a development environment. I’ve heard some people argue this as a “good thing”. That’s bullshit. OS X impotency for development is not a design decision to make separation of concern part of the operating system. It’s just that OS X doesn’t do what a developer needs their operating system to do.

Admittedly, GNU/Linux also has some pain points that make things like Illumos quite appealing. But at least GNU/Linux does enough of it right to make it useable for development. Honestly, the only “development” work I’ve done so far is just writing this blog post and making minor changes to my website’s CSS. I’ve tried editing some Linux kernel code or trying to hack on some cool Go code and it just doesn’t feel right. I keep finding myself sshing back into my main rig.

Filesystem Pollution

I don’t know about you, but I really like the FreeBSD filesystem layout. It’s clean, fully regimented, makes sense and is completely predictable. Want an example config script for the service you just installed? It’s in /etc/defaults or in /usr/local/etc/defaults. Compare that simplicity with this:

$ ls /
Applications                    System                          bin
etc                             net                             tmp
Library                         Users                           cores
home                            private                         usr
Network                         Volumes                         dev
installer.failurerequests       sbin                            var

I’m not even sure what directory is for what. Applications/ seems very descriptive, but then you have System/ and Library/ which both contain parts of applications.

Speaking of filesystems, we might as well mention the elephant in the room: HFS+. Never have I heard of a more schizophrenic filesystem. Case insensitivity (fucking seriously?), weird design choices in regards to endian-ness, weird design choices about normalising Unicode (because HFS+ supports Unicode, but badly). It’s hilarious that certain constructs (like ..) had to be hacked around to deal with the normalisation of unicode (where a unicode string could normalise to ..). If you want to learn more, read this classic Torvalds shitstorm.

Just please give me ext4 or ZFS. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “A filesystem, a filesystem! My kingdom for a decent filesystem!” (or at least, I’m sure that’s what he would’ve written today).

Hardware

While the rest of this post was dedicated to just OS X, I do feel like I need to quickly discuss the Macbook hardware. I must admit that this hardware is pretty nice (it’s fairly overpriced, but since I didn’t pay for it that isn’t a pain point). The retina display is very beautiful, but I do find myself getting headaches and thinking that the text is blurry when I’m working on some code.

The EFI firmware on Macbooks has historically been insanely proprietary, and that still is the case. The only way to update the firmware is through OS X (this is hardly a surprise, Apple is hardly the “open systems company”). It is quite annoying though, because it means that when I purge my laptop of OS X I’ll have to keep a small OS X partition so I can update the firmware (and get support from Apple).

Update

So, I’ve been using my Mac as my main driver for 5 months. Because Linux doesn’t support the keyboard and trackpad, I can’t install any GNU/Linux distribution on it. Unfortunately, the battery life is such a good selling point that I can’t switch from it at the moment. I am however planning on buying a better laptop soon, and installing coreboot and GNU/Linux on it. I still don’t like any of the swishy bullshit, I still don’t like the completely broken App Store updates, I still don’t like the fact that I’m treated like a child on my own machine.

Unless otherwise stated, all of the opinions in the above post are solely my own and do not necessary represent the views of anyone else. This post is released under the Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license.

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