David Mytton

Technology vs philosophy, or macOS vs Linux

Published in Hardware, Product Engineering.

Technology vs philosophy, or macOS vs Linux

Prior to the release of the new Apple Silicon MacBooks, Apple appeared to have lost interest in the Mac. The terrible laptop keyboards had only just been fixed and macOS Catalina was the buggiest release in a long time. I struggled with constant crashes and bugs throughout the system to the point where I decided to move away from key Apple apps I had been using, like Notes.

The announcement of macOS Big Sur was the final straw. Its poor UX and Apple-service-bypass of user-installed firewalls made me decide not to upgrade, and by the end of 2020 I had switched to a Star Labs LabTop running Linux. I still have my MacBook Air, but it may be the last Mac I own, and I have no intention of upgrading it to Big Sur.

Despite this, Apple is the most innovative hardware company in consumer technology. The new Apple Silicon MacBooks might look exactly the same (still with awful cameras) but the internals are a game-changer. The M1 chip is faster, quieter, and more energy efficient than anything else on the market. Rosetta 2 is a real marvel, with emulation reportedly performing better on the M1 vs their native x86 versions.

Apple also has the best platform security. From the secure enclave on iOS devices and T2 macs through to native full-disk encryption, privacy-by-design, and ongoing improvements such as the iMessage blastdoor, Apple has a real advantage being able to vertically integrate the stack.

Unfortunately, this means handing over more and more control to Apple. An example of this was the system integrity checker outage that prevented users launching apps back in 2020. Or the deprecation of kernel extensions in favour of a new API that prevented firewalls from operating properly (only now reversed in macOS 11.12). Or the locked down system volumes which are hampering backups and dual booting.

Linux has come a long way, particularly on the desktop where I’ve been using it every day for the last 5 months. I rarely have to go back to my MacBook for anything. I’ve encountered few bugs, it never crashes, it’s fast, all the apps I need are available (desktop, command line, or via the web) and it’s all open source. I have customised the UI and set up a tiling window manager with a range of shortcuts that make my usage much more efficient.

My Linux setup as of 2020-12-31
My Linux setup as of 2020-12-31.

I’ve never had an Apple device fail but my current MacBook Air has already had 2 keyboard replacements under warranty. The Star Labs laptop I have is user repairable and they sell spare parts for all their older range which will hopefully mean it lasts a long time.

I’m happy with a more locked-down approach as an iPhone user because I use it much less, and only for messaging, health/exercise tracking, and as a camera. My laptop is my primary device so I want to have full control over it.

macOS used to offer that: a polished UI and great, native apps running within a Unix-like OS running on the nicest hardware that allowed me to get into the details of the command line when I was writing code.

That is still possible, but it’s eroding. Apple has always taken a more locked-down approach, but macOS used to be much more friendly to the power user. I now have to make a decision between having the best, cutting-edge hardware vs the freedom and control to do what I want with the device I spend most of my time on.

Desktop Linux is not ready for the mainstream user, although projects like Elementary are getting there. But it is ready for anyone technical who is willing to invest the time. The philosophical reasons are compelling: open source, control, customisation. Anecdotally I’ve seen many developers make similar arguments. Developers are early adopters and whilst Apple continues to make record revenues, perhaps this dissatisfaction with the platform is a leading indicator.

There are occasional issues with Linux sound output, it requires quite a lot of time to set everything up just right, and configuring some things needs a web search to find someone else who has got it working. But now my computer is actually mine.

I still follow Apple’s announcements and am impressed with the technology going into the new Silicon. I’m occasionally temped back, but then I’m reminded that Apple doesn’t care about developers and is behaving more and more like a monopolist. Their shift to services revenue is a change of incentive away from building good software which is already showing up in a degraded UX.

It’s sad that the best of both worlds is no longer available.