Wednesday, February the 15th, 2006

(I’d written up a version of what I paste below to present to a Mac audience, basically asking the question, “How free software friendly is OS X”? As it turns out, Fink and DarwinPorts provide a free software package management system atop Darwin/OS X—just like any decent UNIX(R) OS. And that means I might run OS X for a while after all!)

When Apple first announced its shift to Intel processors last year, I recall a slew of articles from die-hard Apple fans who almost seemed to feel cheated. It seemed as though the one thing that differentiated them from the rest of the PC world was snatched away from them—while they were kicking and screaming.

Now I’m probably in the minority, but I was personally very pleased by this decision. It has caused me—someone who has appreciated but never really considered Apple machines—to order a relatively expensive laptop from them. Clearly, this move won them at least one additional customer.

But where am I coming from?

I’m a geek who’s been around x86 machines since I was 2 (two). And currently, after all these years, I am working on PhDs—in applied mechanics and scientific computing—where I get to play with large clusters (x86, of course). My primary work environment has been GNU/Linux for over a decade now, and exclusively for the past few years. And no, I haven’t a life, or friends.

Though I’ve had access to very capable generic machines, I’ve always enjoyed the visual appeal and unexplainable charm that Apple hardware presented (Yes, I’m looking at you, delectably-drool-worthy Orange iBook). But tantalising as they’ve been, the rational portion of my brain kept reminding me—different architecture: endianness, RISC/CISC, … . I am in no way saying it is inferior or bad; it’s just that I was not used to it and felt uneasy at the thought of making it my primary computing platform. This is the same mentality—but in the opposite direction—that drove those “I feel so cheated” articles I mentioned earlier.

Now before you go, “Why do you care what’s on the inside?”, I’d like to remind you I’m a geek, and these things matter to me. I care primarily because I work on things like optimising numerical libraries at low levels for a living, but even if I didn’t, I would feel strongly for some rabid-pseudo-religious reason or the other. Sometimes, you’re just entrenched and comfortable with what you’ve known and come to love, that’s all.

Which brings me back to the point of this story. Now that the shift to Intel processors had begun, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to pick up my x86y goodness in a fabulous casing with cool glowey LEDs; and I did. I know this will aggravate the more hard-core Apple fans, but I say “x86 goodness in a fabulous casing” because I’m thinking of it as just that: a regular, albeit attractive, PC variant. All the components inside seem generic enough, and I was carefully considering another close equivalent to the MacBook Pro.

I know. You’re going to scream “But what about OS X and all the other software goodies!?!”.

Honestly, I don’t know.

Being at a university, I’ve had the opportunity to use OS X from time to time, but never really long or seriously enough to form an opinion as to whether I love it or not. Until a few minutes ago, I was quite certain I was going replace OS X with a capable GNU/Linux distribution the moment I got my grimy little hands on my new machine. I would then have all that I wanted, a hardware and software platform I was used to and learnt to love, and the exterior shininess I’d pined for. But it just dawned on me that OS X being a UNIX(R) variant (even if quite seriously bastardised at that), and my lack of plans to do anything too fancy, that maybe it would foot the bill as my primary work environment.

So, here’s where I get to my question. I spent a few minutes jotting down my most-used applications (as an indicator of the sorts of tasks I do), and was wondering how much of this could be achieved natively in OS X? I am OK with the idea of installing an additional X server, for the applications that don’t like drawing using Apple’s own shiny graphics subsystem, but I am not OK with the recreating a GNU/Linux environment (ala Cygwin) inside OS X (to provide what it ought to in the first place).

Though I’m a bit of a Free Software zealot, and would probably move on to GNU/Linux anyway as soon as it were possible, I would love to explore the idea of just using a slick UNIX(R) based OS to get all that I need done, plus offering me some of the much-talked-about award-winning über-intuitive hyper-usability-tested interface done just right(TM). Maybe I will give OS X a whirl exclusively for a couple of months before making up my mind. Anyway, without stalling anymore, here is a list of my most used applications and often performed tasks.

All the time:
Bash shell
“Standard” command line utilities (e.g. gawk, grep, wget, diff, patch, …)
GNU Emacs (Just about all programming and writing)
GNU Screen (Multi-tasking)
Mozilla Thunderbird (E-mail, mailing lists, news, web logs, podcasts, …)

Mozilla Firefox (Browsing the Internet)
Gaim (Instant messaging)
Rhythmbox (Listening to music)
MPlayer (Playing files in every media format under the sun)
SSH (Secure remote access)

GCC/Intel Compilers (Building C/C++/Fortran code)
CVS/Subversion/Arch (Revision control)

LaTeX (Typesetting documents)
xpdf/xdvi (Viewing typeset documents)

The GIMP + ufRAW (Photo/Image processing)
Inkscape (Simple drawing)

Matlab/Octave (Prototyping code)
Mathematica/Maxima (Tedious algebra)

Less often:
GDB/DDD (Debugging code)
Ripping audio CDs to FLAC/Ogg Vorbis
Burning data and audio CDs
Mozilla Sunbird (Maintain my schedule)

Azureus (Download ISOs and such)
Audacity (Record and edit audio)

I would also like to (but currently can’t) try out voice conversations via services like Google Talk, but it’s not a requisite.

So, friendly Mac users, can all of these apps be run natively in OS X? If not, what would it take? Could you suggest alternative applications? What about programming libraries? Do the GNU auto-build-tools work seamlessly on OS X too? (As in can I just fetch, for instance, the GIMP and its dependencies, and build it without much mucking around?)

Anything else I ought to know?

And thank you thank you for your patience if you get to this point.

This is a printer-friendly version of the journal entry “A case for GNU/Linux on my MacBook Pro” from actuality.log. Visit to read the original entry and follow any responses to it.

7 Responses to “A case for GNU/Linux on my MacBook Pro”

  1. pUl| says:

    OS X may be fabulous. It isn’t free. No second thoughts there, period.

  2. pundit says:

    But Darwin is. If I’m just going to use it as a (free) Unix box with free software (with an X server and everything), how much different is it from using GNU?

    This is just a thought experient.

  3. pundit says:

    In more concrete terms (it’s still a thought experiment). As far as I understand it, from what I’ve been told:

    Max OS X ~= Darwin (Free Software) + Proprietary Rendering Extensions
    Darwin ~= FreeBSD + A Mach kernel (like the HURD)
    DarwinPorts ~= NetBSD’s Ports system

    So, if I were to use, for instance, GNU Emacs on Darwin via DarwinPorts, and it draws itself on screen using Xorg, how different is that really from what I do now?

    (Apart from the icky non-GPL BSD license.)

  4. pUl| says:

    But ultimately you’re doing all this over a proprietary operating system when you clearly have the choice to move to a “free” base. Exploration is good, within limits that is.

  5. pundit says:

    Of course, as an operating system, it’s non-free. Anyway, I was just thinking of playing around with it until people figured out how to boot GNU/Linux on it, and it seems like I don’t even have to wait!

  6. Hey, Glad to see that you are switching – at least with hardware if not with software. I would recommend you give OS X a whirl – its free since you’re getting it with the laptop.

    Here’s pictures of the MacBook Pro from someone who got theirs.

  7. pundit says:

    Hey hey!

    I’ve been ogling over many such pictures and gotten my hands on some Mac OS X Tiger books to peruse when I make the time. That said, I am not really looking at it as a switch because it’s generic-enough hardware, capable of running generic-enough software I’m used to. All of this is just a stunt to make 3% more of a statement at coffee shops, that’s it.

    Anyway, all that’s unimportant.

    Where are you? How goes things? (I’m still firmly planted in graduate school, so it’s not much of a story there.)

    Surprisingly enough, I’ve been in touch with a friend of your sister’s, and your name came up rather recently. Fancy that!

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