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January 2007
February 2007

2007-01-24 »

While you weren't looking, operating systems became irrelevant

I wrote briefly before about how I now own a Mac laptop and am thus automatically entitled to be a Mac zealot. What I said at the time was true, but also a bit tongue-in-cheek.

What's actually true is that I'm a "use the right tool for the right job" zealot, and Macs happen to be the right tool an increasing amount of the time lately. I think that has almost nothing to do with their software, and a lot to do with their hardware - and the fact that the software was made for it.

Swooshy windows, yet another variant of Firefox and OpenOffice, yet another average-quality Unix clone (or a below-average Linux clone), a rather questionable music player, a highly questionable video player (Quicktime), a buggy X11 server, a total inability to synchronize with my Blackberry, a lame port of CUPS that's supposedly an excuse for printing, and an almost-as-good-but-costs-money clone of VMware... those are really not very good reasons to want to use a Mac.

But I bought one, and it's great. Why? Well, excellent power management tops the list. Then there's the power connector with built-in LED, the volume control that knows whether I have headphones plugged in, the two-finger scrolling touchpad, the slot-based CD player, the high-quality keyboard, the tiny "mylar sleeve" case I have that's custom-designed for its shape, the CPU fan that blows somewhere that's not out the bottom so using it on a bed doesn't cause overheating.

You know, the computer. Not the operating system at all.

You know why I finally bought one of these things? Because it had an Intel processor, which meant I could run Windows (which I need) and Linux (which I like) in a VM at near-native speeds.

But here's the thing. Apple could have never made hardware this good unless there was an operating system that could handle it; most of those hardware features, like power saving, needed some special support from the software. Microsoft isn't likely to provide it, and Linux is useless to normal people, so there was no other choice.

Until recently, that meant using good hardware was this terrible compromise: you can have great hardware, and the operating system fully supports it, but oh yeah, those apps you need? They don't run. But we have these mediocre toy ones that sort of do similar things. Maybe try those?

Not anymore. Now an operating system can do what it was originally meant to do: run your hardware, and get the heck out of the way. There's a separation of the operating system from the desktop environment like the Unix people were trying to do, but at a level that actually works. It only works because CPUs are so fast now, but it works nevertheless: we emulate a whole computer, on top of the computer we built, and it's not really too slow anymore. It turns out that emulating hardware is effectively a fixed cost, not a linear cost, so beyond a certain CPU speed, it's never worth removing anymore.

I have a Linux machine. It suspends and resumes perfectly every time, and its audio volume adjusts automatically when I plug and unplug my headphones. I can do two-finger scrolling on my touchpad without violating Apple's patents.

It's running in a virtual machine on my Mac.


The relationship of this post with the fact that Mono is an excellent .NET clone that runs on Windows, Linux, and MacOS X, and Microsoft obviously knows this and likes it just fine, is left as an exercise to the reader. If operating systems are irrelevant, where do you suppose Microsoft wants to be today?

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