I tried my hardest to help my wife love Unix. When we were still dating, I built a little Debian machine for her so we could chat on ICQ while I was at work (and gave it to her on Valentine’s Day; aren’t I romantic?). That lasted for a while, but I eventually switched it to FreeBSD for reasons I no longer remember. Her computers always worked pretty well, but she was never happy with her inability to install software on her own, or to run games and applications from the local non-geek stores.
After a few years, I eventually gave in and helped her pick out a shiny new LCD iMac. She opened the box, plugged it in, followed the instructions, and it worked. She was happy and I was happy. After a while, I gained a real appreciation for how well the system was designed. What’s more, after a while I began to wonder if RMS would forgive me for abandoning my free software workstation in favor of the forbidden fruit.
Unix desktops environments haven’t been standing still, though, and my KDE setup at work becomes ever better with each new minor release. It does everything I ask of it (and since it’s a development system, that’s quite a lot) without ever complaining. Konqueror is slick and fast, KMail is the best email client I’ve ever used outside of Emacs, and the system as a whole is nearly as integrated (and in some ways more so) than Mac OS X.
However, I was reminded of the main reason that I could never really give in to the temptation last week. I’d been using Gentoo on my office workstation, but my coworker brought in a freshly-burned Kubuntu CD. I popped it in, wiped everything but my home directory, and was back up and running before my lunch break was over. I know then what I had forgotten: the one thing I simply can’t give up is choice.
That same work computer has run Debian, FreeBSD, Gentoo, and Kubuntu over the last couple of years. Each of those systems had its own features and quirks, and it’s always been my decision about which I wanted to run at any given time. Nothing but a few minutes of downtime kept me from switching between the “flavor of the month”. No vendor gave me a hassle. All of my personal data was available without interruption or messy imports and exports. Furthermore, I’ve periodically used Gnome and XFCE4—wholly different desktop environments—knowing that I could switch back to KDE on a whim without a bit of data loss or other aggravation.
OS X is certainly a beautiful operating system, and I universally recommend it to people who don’t want to learn about their computer or don’t have an experienced Unix-using friend close at hand. For me, though, it’s more of an inspiration than an aspiration. I see it as a working prototype of what free software systems can be (and are moving toward) rather than something that could replace them. You still have my attention Apple, but the fruit over in this orchard is also pretty sweet.
(This newsletter was originally a blog entry posted on the the 24th of June 2006.)