Jedi versus the Borg:
Mac OS X in a Microsoft World
By Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi Journal, May/June 2002,
One of the great ironies of the past year is the success
of Mac OS X. This might not be immediately obvious. Many
long-time Mac fanatics have yet to succumb to the charms of
the new, cutting-edge operating system, complaining loudly
that Mac OS X isn't very Mac-like. Some noteworthy
luminaries, including a few former high priests of the
Macintosh user interface, have buttressed this claim,
suggesting that there is nothing to the Macintosh except the
interface, and that Mac OS X doesn't faithfully preserve it.
Therefore, presumably, Mac OS X is nothing.
Moving away from the high priests to the world of the
"average user," there are lots of raucous gripes about the
number of applications available. "It has been almost a
year; why haven't they ported Landfill Management 7.2 to Mac
OS X? The entire landfill management industry will abandon
the Mac for Windows if this isn't available on Mac OS X by
Wednesday!" Apparently Apple, and the entire Mac vendor
community, is criminally irresponsible for failing to
duplicate in one year the wealth of applications developed
for "classic" Mac OS over nearly twenty years. It would be a
shame to have landfills run with Windows...
And yet -- Mac OS X is a hit. There really are thousands
of applications available, ranging from old mainstays such
as ClarisWorks and Microsoft Office to spectacular brand new
ones such as OmniWeb, StoneStudio and Maya. Combined with
the wealth of applications still available through Mac OS
Classic, the range of choices and possibilities has never
Don't believe me? Then take a look:
If the traditionalists seem to have colic, where are
these ardent Mac OS X fans coming from? After all, in the
"real world," Windows won, so if the Mac faithful have lost
faith, who is left? Is there anybody?
Despite the headlines, the world has not been totally
consumed by Microsoft. True, Windows (all flavors) and Mac
OS (all flavors) do account for somewhere around 95% of
those roaming the Internet (one of the easiest things to
measure), but there are lots of other strange beasts out
there. If you administer a Web server, you'll see the
occasional visits from WebTV users (no computer at all,
really), BeOS stalwarts, UNIX gurus in various guises, Linux
fanatics, and even an occasional Atari user. The universe of
the Internet is rich and varied, though a few areas -- the
vast wastelands of MSN (Microsoft Network), for example --
are devoid of diversity, having fallen victim to digital
Microsoft intends to rid the computing world of chaos by
making it one homogenous offshoot of -- surprise! --
Microsoft. Web designers and program writers, in the
forthcoming Brave New World, will no longer have to worry if
people are using a Mac or a PC or a UNIX machine, or are
using Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape or Opera or
OmniWeb. The clamorous din of the rabble will give way to
the nice, melodious major and minor chords of the Microsoft
opera, with an all-Microsoft cast playing all major, minor
and supporting roles.
Or not. There is no question a large ABM (Anybody But
Microsoft) movement is active in the digital world. The
rebels seem to be divided into three main camps:
1) Linux and UNIX users: these tend to be
technically savvy users who want more control over their
digital lives than Microsoft offers.
2) Apple users: these tend to be users who see
computers as both a tool and an esthetic, and find the
Microsoft world too confining and confounding.
3) Lapsed Microsoftics: these tend to be users who
were raised in Microsoft families, attended Microsoft
schools, but found the Microsoft faith to be ethically,
morally or digitally lacking, and are looking for
These camps, until recently, had almost nothing in
common. The Linux/UNIX zealots were considered throwbacks to
an earlier, more complex era in computing; the Apple/Mac
users were not really computer users at all, but coddled,
pampered members of an odd cult; and the lapsed Microsoftics
were no different than any group bordering on apostasy --
more noted for their anger and discontent than for anything
Until recently, the ABM forces seemed to be nothing but
annoying footnotes. Microsoft's libretto, composed with
Microsoft software and printed on Microsoft Partner-approved
equipment, seemed to be the only show in town. Until
So what happened recently? Mac OS X happened. Combining
something old (UNIX) with something new (powerful desktop
and laptop machines) and something not quite new
(traditional, "Classic" Mac OS), Mac OS X has created a
sensation in the UNIX and Linux communities. Apple's "free"
programs -- iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto -- have seduced countless
thousands of Windows users into "trying out" Macs. Now, if
the Macintosh grumps would only get on the bandwagon...
What does UNIX offer that Windows doesn't? The answer:
freedom. Since 1969, UNIX has had an odd life, growing up in
research labs and universities. These environments put a
premium on getting things done, and assume the user is
halfway intelligent. How something looks is irrelevant --
unless, of course, "look" is important to a task -- so ease
of use, and even consistency, are not as important as
function. Even more striking is the reward system:
researchers and scholars are rewarded with recognition for
getting something done, rather than (ahem) money, so there
is a long history of free exchange of programs, techniques
and discoveries in the UNIX world. As long as the source is
credited, everyone is happy.
On the other hand, all attempts to make UNIX a
"commercial" operating system have failed. In fact, about
the same time Apple introduced the Macintosh, a company
called Fortune introduced a UNIX-based desktop machine with
a nice graphical front end; Fortune vanished without trace,
as have countless other attempts. The university and
professional UNIX fans split into two competing camps, with
the West Coast factions favoring BSD (Berkeley Software
Distribution) UNIX and the East Coast factions favoring
AT&T UNIX, both of which rarely left the campus or
In the 1990s, Hewlett-Packard (H-P), Silicon Graphics
(SGI) and Sun all managed to make UNIX popular for high-end
scientific workstations, but SGI has since left the UNIX
fold, and H-P is now concentrating on consumer-level Windows
computers. Meanwhile, Linux, an open source UNIX work-alike,
burst on the scene, running on inexpensive Intel-based
computers and gradually creeping into the "professional"
UNIX bastions. The grass-roots popularity of Linux inspired
investors to sink billions of dollars in companies that
would "bring Linux to the desktop," competing with Windows.
It didn't happen.
The multi-language support in Mac OS X,
including support of non-Roman languages, is
nothing less than astonishing. Opening up all the
Read-Me files for iTunes is a trivial, but
spectacular, demonstration of Apple's low-key
campaign to win converts through, literally,
speaking their own language.
Mixed movie metaphors
Instead, Mac OS X happened. Apple, the only survivor of
the "original" personal computer companies (Apple, Atari,
Commodore and Radio Shack), took BSD UNIX, wrapped it in an
attractive Aqua shell, and -- amazing! -- successfully sold
it to the masses. When 2002 dawned, Apple, of all things,
was the largest manufacturer of UNIX workstations in the
And, unlike Sun or H-P UNIX, or Linux, Mac OS X is easy
to install, easy to update, easy to configure, and easy to
use. Most revolutionary, of course, is that you can use Mac
OS X and never bother to learn much, if anything, about
UNIX. The original Mac OS X 10.0 release wasn't particularly
Mac-like, but it certainly wasn't much like UNIX, either.
The current version (as of this writing, Mac OS X 10.1.3)
looks and acts very Mac-like indeed. No, it isn't the same
as Mac OS 9 -- but that's not all bad, either.
For Linux zealots, Mac OS X offers the power of UNIX
(which is what attracted them to Linux in the first place)
coupled with the ease of use of a Macintosh. For Windows
apostates, Mac OS X offers a new-found freedom from the
dictates of Redmond, and a chance to see if the grass really
is greener on the other side of the fence. For open-source
software authors, Mac OS X offers an inexpensive, widely
supported, and stunningly attractive platform for showing
off their wares. For all of them, there are those marvelous
toys: iMovie, iDVD, iPhoto, iTunes, iPod...
Apple has stumbled on an interesting strategy for
expanding its market share. While Microsoft tries to
assimilate everyone and everything into the Microsoft way
(their headquarters address, not surprisingly, is One
Microsoft Way), Apple gently promotes a more accommodating
style, in tune with the fabric of the universe rather than
in opposition to it.
Apple claims it is not at war with Microsoft -- and that
is true. The Apple Jedi Knights are not interested in
battle; instead, they are showing an alternate, very
attractive path. They do not oppose the Microsoft Borg
Collective, but they don't want to be part of it, either.
And that freedom from the Collective is quickly gathering
converts from the other digital disciplines.
At a recent trade show, I found one long-time UNIX
developer showing a complex suite of GIS (Geographic
Information System) packages running on a Power Mac G4. The
Power Mac was running Mac OS X, and on top of Mac OS X the
developer was running X11 (X Window), the classic UNIX
graphical user interface. On top of X11, he was running the
suite of GIS packages.
After a few minutes, he closed down X Window, and brought
up a beta-version of the GIS packages which he'd rewritten
to take explicit advantage of Mac OS X and Aqua. "This will
be much better."
Another Jedi Knight has found the path.