February 22, 2011

The Road From Windows to Mac OS

As previously mentioned, I'll be making "the switch" in the coming weeks, after Apple unveils their new MacBook Pro line and I have a chance to mull the available choices in the Pro and Air lines together. Long a Windows user, programmer and hardware assembler, I'm making the move to the Mac OS platform for a number of reasons, but primarily two: functional integration and design. The former is a reflection of age and experience, the latter, a nascient and diminutive taste for finer things. You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I do enjoy a little refinement now and then (see Hendricks gin, Thinkpad laptops, my wife's cooking).

This year marks thirty years for me playing with computers. Admittedly, my interest in computing began with programming, not gaming (such as it was at the time: Pong), but it still qualifies as entertainment for my mind. Over that period I've owned, built or otherwise used the Tandy Color Computer and CC 2, Commodore Amiga 500, a self-built pc clone or six for me, my family and friends, a series of employer-purchased Winbook and Dell laptops and desktop machines, a self-purchased Thinkpad and a MacBook Pro for my wife. For employment I've worked on IBM mainframes and rack servers. I've run Color Basic, AmigaDOS, MSDOS, Windows of varying version and reliability and Mac OS X on those hardware platforms at home, MVS, NAS, AIX and ERAM at work. Add to that a long list of arcane application software going back to Dillon UUCP on the Amiga. (That machine was one-hop connected to the legendary DECVAX for a USENET feed and email.) This is a long way of saying I've been fooling with these devices, and making a living off them for a while and have gained some muscle memory for what works, and works well, and what I like about it. "The switch" is about spending less time getting a device to do what I want and more time simply using it. It's about leaving behind the need to constantly fiddle with a machine long after the hobbyist phase of computing became a matter of history and lore.

In every case of new hardware, I've spent hours configuring and connecting devices to get them up to speed with what I already had everything else in my computing environment doing. Printers, network connections, air cards, software. There were the inevitable struggles with device drivers that didn't drive, network connections that timed out waiting for a remote directory scan, peripherals that worked one day but not the next. Things improved over time, as you'd expect, but in general my experience in the Windows world was one that whispered at design-by-engineer. As a software engineer, I can say you don't want software user interfaces, or any hardware or software feature that touches the user, that wasn't at least run past usability designers. What satisfies a hardware or software engineer will likely leave the casual user confused and unhappy with the product, and eventually even the engineer-as-user will get tired of devices that require fiddling.

Save the latest two, I've also never owned or used a laptop machine that didn't require one or more warranty visits to replace loose hinges, broken motherboard, distorted display. One Dell laptop required three visits over two years, and eventually everything but the palm rests was replaced. Try making money selling that level of quality.

From this sort of experience comes a desire for computing solutions that just work, quickly and pleasantly conveying the user from opening the box to use and bypassing as much as possible the dreaded configuration phase, as backlash from years of dealing with difficult computing products. At the very least, I want to set it once and use it.

Over the past two years I've been playing with a couple of hardware/software platforms that fit this requirement. The first is the MacBook hardware and Mac OS X combination. In my opinion, Thinkpad makes the best non-Apple laptop hardware and has been a reliable tool for me over this period, but as good as their industrial design is Lenovo takes a back seat to Apple for build quality and eye-pleasing appearance. Just as your hand knows a quality tool when you pick it up, so too your hand and mind will understand the design quality of an Apple product when you heft it. Turn it on and you are presented with a simple, occasionally sparse user interface conveying you to your task or entertainment without requiring a search for the right software tool, another to select how it will work for you, and still more to get it talking to your peripherals.

Data Robotics has produced a line of storage arrays that take the complexity out of RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks), leaving you with a device that packs a great deal of crash-tolerant, data-protecting storage into an almost management-free device. Their recently-expanded FS line plugs that device into your local network, putting all that storage in view of all machines in your home or business. Their proprietary storage software, running on a Linux variant, provides a reliable, trustworthy repository for all of your data, and an easy-to-use backup destination. There is so little to manage about these devices that you'll go from box to use in under a half-hour. You'll get a red light on the unit's face if a drive fails; just pull it and replace with another of any size at your leisure. No data loss. Expandable as drive sizes increase. And if you like to fiddle out of curiosity, rather than necessity (you know who you are), the Drobo FS is Linux, after all, and adding tools like ssh and rsync lets you sync a pair of these devices for ultimate fault tolerance.

"The switch" is, for me, about embracing a vision of usability. It's about enjoying a device for its simplicity, as in the iPad and its revolutionary user interface, or its physically comfortable design, well-integrated operating system and eye-catching display, as in the Mac line and Mac OS X, rather than having to be an eternal hobbyist just to keep it working. You can buy cheaper hardware, you can play with cheaper (free) operating system software. In all things, though, you get what you pay for.

As a friend once advised about looking for a finer gin, "cast your eyes upward."