April 28th, 2015

Hard Stare

Why I'm not interest in an all-Apple solution but fancy an all-Ubuntu one

(Repurposed CIX post.)

Don’t get me wrong. I like Apple kit. I am typing right now on an original 1990 Apple Extended II keyboard, attached via a ABD-USB convertor to a Core i5 Mac mini from 2011, running Mac OS X 10.10. It’s a very pleasant computer to work on.

But, to give an example of the issues — I also have an iPhone. It’s my spare smartphone with my old UK SIM in it.

But it’s an iPhone 4. Not a lot of RAM, under clocked CPU, and of course not upgradable.

So I’ve kept it on iOS 6, because I already find it annoyingly slow and iOS 7 would cause a reported 15-25% or more slowdown. And that’s the latest it will run.

Which means that [a] I can’t use lots of iPhone apps as they no longer support iOS 6.x and [b] it doesn’t do any of the cool integration with my Mac, because my Mac needs a phone running iOS 8 to do clever CTI stuff.

My old 3GS I upgraded from iOS 4 to 5 to 6, and regretted it. It got slower & slower and Apple being Apple, *you can’t go back*.

Apple kit is computers simplified for non-computery people. Stuff you take for granted with COTS PC kit just can’t be done. Not everything — since the G3 era, they take ordinary generic RAM, hard disks, optical drives, etc. Graphics cards etc. can often be made to work; you can, with work, replace CPUs and runs OSes too modern to be supported.

But it takes work. If you don’t want that, if you just max out the RAM, put a big disk in and live with it, then it’s fine. I’m old enough that I want a main computer that Just Works and gives me no grief and the Mac is all that and it cost me under £150, used. The OS is of course freeware and so are almost all the apps I run — mostly FOSS.

I like FOSS software. I use Firefox, Adium, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Calibre, VirtualBox and BOINC. I also have some closed-source freeware like Chrome, Dropbox, TextWrangler and Skype. I don’t use Apple’s browser, email client, chat client, text editor, productivity apps or anything. More or less only iTunes, really.

What this means is that I can use pretty much the same suite of apps on Linux, Mac and Windows, making switching between them seamless and painless. My main phone runs Android, my travelling laptop is a 2nd-hand Thinkpad with the latest Ubuntu LTS on it.

As such, many of the benefits of an all-Apple solution are not available to me — texting and making phone calls from the desktop, seamless handover of file editing from desktop to laptop to tablet, wireless transparent media sync between computers and phone, etc.

I choose not to use any of this stuff because I don’t trust closed file formats and dislike vendor lock-in.

Additionally, I don’t like Apple’s modern keyboards and trackpads, and I like portable devices where I can change the battery or upgrade the storage. So I don’t use Apple laptops and phones and don’t own a tablet. iPads are just big iPhones and I don’t like iPhones much anyway. The apps are too constrained, I hate typing on a touchscreen “keyboard” and I don’t like reading book-length texts from a brightly-glowing screen — I have a large-screen (A4) Kindle for ebooks. (Used off eBay, natch.) TBH I’d quite like a backlight on it but the big-screen model doesn’t offer one.

But I don’t get that with Ubuntu. I never used UbuntuOne; I don’t buy digital content at all, from anyone; my Apple account is around 20 years old and has no payment method set up on it. I have no lock-in to Apple and Ubuntu doesn’t try to foist it on me.

With Ubuntu, *I* choose the laptop and I can (and did) build my own desktops, or more often, use salvaged freebies. My choice of keyboard and mouse, etc. I mean, sure, the Retina iMac is lovely, but it costs more than I’m willing to spend on a computer.

Android is… all right. It’s flakey but it’s cheap, customisable (I’ve replaced web browser, keyboard, launcher and email app, something Apple does not readily permit without drastic limitations) and it works well enough.

But it’s got bloatware, tons of vendor-specific extensions and it’s not quick.

Ubuntu is sleek as Linuxes go. I like the desktop. I turn off the web ads and choose my own default apps and it’s perfectly happy to let me. I can remove the built-in ones if I want and it doesn’t break anything.

If I could get a phone that ran Ubuntu, I’d be very interested. And it might tempt me into buying a tablet.

I’ve tried all the leading Linuxes (and most of the minor ones) and so long as you’re happy with its desktop, Ubuntu is the best by a country mile. It’s the most polished, best-integrated, it works well out of the box. I more or less trust them, as much as I trust any software vendor.

The Ubuntu touch offerings look good — the UI works well, the apps look promising, and they have a very good case for the same apps working well on phone and tablet, and the tablet becoming a usable desktop if you just plug a mouse in.

Here’s a rather nice little 3min demo:

Wireless mouse turned on: desktop mode, windows, title bars, menus, etc.
Turn it off, mid-session: it’s a tablet, with touch controls. *With all the same same apps and docs still open.*
Mouse back on: it’s in desktop mode again.

And there’s integration — e.g. phone apps run full-size in a sidebar on a tablet screen, visible side-by-side with tablet apps.

Microsoft doesn’t have this, Apple doesn’t, Google doesn’t.

It looks promising, it runs on COTS hardware and it’s FOSS. What’s not to like?

I suspect, when the whole plan comes together, that they will have a compelling desktop OS, a compelling phone OS and a compelling tablet OS, all working very well together but without any lock-in. That sounds good to me and far preferable to shelling out thousands on new kit to achieve the same on Apple’s platform. Because C21 Apple is all about selling you hardware — new, and regularly replaced, too — and then selling you digital content to consume on it.

Ubuntu isn’t. Ubuntu’s original mission was to bring Linux up to the levels of ease and polish of commercial OSes.

It’s done that.

Sadly, the world failed to beat a path to its door. It’s the leading Linux and it’s expanded the Linux market a little, but Apple beat it to market with a Unix that is easier, prettier and friendlier than Windows — and if you’re willing to pay for it, Apple makes nicer hardware too.

But now we’re hurtling into the post-desktop era. Apple is leading the way; Steve Jobs finally proved his point that he knew how to make a tablet that people wanted and Bill Gates didn’t. Gates’ company still doesn’t, even when it tries to embrace and extend the iPad type of device: millions of the original Surface tablets are destined for landfill like the Atari ET game and Apple Lisa. (N.B. *not* the totally different Surface Pro, but people use it as a lightweight laptop.)

But Apple isn’t trying to make its touch devices replace desktops and laptops — it wants to sell both.

Ubuntu doesn’t sell hardware at all. So it’s trying to drag proper all-FOSS Linux kicking and screaming into the twenty-twenties: touch-driven *and* by desk-bound hardware-I/O, equally happy on ARM or x86-64, very shiny but still FOSS underneath.

The other big Linux vendors don’t even understand what it’s trying to do. SUSE does Linux servers for Microsoft shops; Red Hat sells millions of support contracts for VMs in expensive private clouds. Both are happy doing what they’re doing.

Whereas Shuttleworth is spending his millions trying to bring FOSS to the masses.

OK, what Elon Musk is doing is much much cooler, but Shuttleworth’s efforts are not trivial.