I've been quiet lately because I'm between trips and between books; aside from deliberating over copy edit changes to "The Rhesus Chart" I'm not actually working right now. (The next novel-shaped death march is scheduled for mid-November.) On the other hand, I can't stay idle for long. So it's computer neepery time!
I work with Apple kit. iPhone, iPad, Macs. My work/productivity environment can be defined by the applications I can't live without: email, web browser (Firefox, in my case), Scrivener (for producing novels), LibreOffice (for all the other office shit), and a password manager. There's some recreational stuff — iTunes for music (I have Airport Express wifi repeaters with audio output to drive remote speakers, the Apple universe equivalent of a Sonos set-up), ebooks and movies and a few casual games (on the iPad). But the majority of my work gets done on one of my two production laptops. I maintain two because (a) I've had machines die on me horribly in the past, and (b) one is a whole lot more portable than the other. So there's a desktop monitor and a Macbook Pro for serious bum-in-chair fingers-on-keyboard work, and a Macbook Air for when I need to travel and need something beefier than an iPad and a wireless keyboard.
But. But. I get itchy at the idea of being mewed up in someone else's walled garden. So I'm always keeping one eye on my exit strategy, should Apple do something so Appallingly Evil that I suddenly feel the urge to flee. (It'd have to be something crazy and stupid if not throat-cuttingly suicidal, at least with respect to their pro market; on the order of demanding the copyright on all intellectual property produced on their machines, or locking down Gatekeeper to prevent any app not sold through the Mac App Store from running on Macs. Or to discontinue Mac OS X and force a migration to iOS without simultaneously opening up the iOS application platform.) I don't expect them to try that kind of stunt. They'd have to be utterly stupid to do so, and even more stupid not to do a U-turn within 48 hours. But if they did ... where would I go for my computing needs?
Microsoft is out. Leaving aside the past 20 years of hating on them, I've periodically dipped a toe in their ecosystem, and I have to say, it's not for me. I'm an old UNIX gearhead going back 25 years; DEC-descended operating systems don't make intuitive sense to me, and Windows hurts my head. So, realistically, that leaves Linux — because the one non-negotiable requirement is a platform for running Scrivener, and Scrivener is available in public beta on Linux.
Anyway. Could I work on Linux again? I used to, but I more or less abandoned it as a desktop platform by 2002. The question festered. Then, a few days ago, I remembered: I had a two year old 11" Macbook Air with OSX 10.8.5 aboard, gathering dust in a corner of the office—the travel machine I superannuated this summer and haven't got around to selling yet. And Ubuntu 13.10 is just out. Why not ...?
A quick check of the supported hardware database showed that installing Ubuntu on a late 2011/early 2012 Macbook Air (dual core i7, aka MacBookAir4-2) is in fact possible; the only unsupported hardware is the Thunderbolt bus, and as I don't have any Thunderbolt peripherals that's no obstacle. I also have a SuperDrive DVD rewriter, which makes life easier (burning bootable USB sticks on a Mac is a bit of a black art—one I never had cause to master). So: go to other laptop, download desktop Ubuntu CD image, burn onto DVD-R, and then prep laptop to receive installation.
The first step was to bring OSX on the old Airbook up to spec, installing updates, and to clear up all the cruft that accumulates over time. Then I used Disk Utility to check the OSX partition and then shrink it down to around 50Gb of the 250Gb SSD, and turn the surplus space into a single MSDOS partition. Next step: install rEFIt, the EFI firmware boot manager. (I wanted to keep a bootable OSX partition in case of firmware updates from Apple. This Airbook isn't one of the ones with the faulty SSDs that Apple have just issued a product recall for, but you never know ...) Finally, having installed a boot manager, I booted Ubuntu 13.10 off the DVD, and told it to go forth and install on my Airbook in the spare DOS partition. Installation went cleanly, and about an hour later I had a Macbook Air running Linux for the first time ...
First thoughts. I haven't run a Linux desktop in anger for a decade, and not everything is an improvement. In particular, the Unity desktop is pretty horrible, especially with a single-button mouse. If you're going to install Ubuntu on a Mac you really need to have a spare multibutton mouse kicking around before you start, if only so that you can configure the machine to work properly with an Apple trackpad. I found the trackpad calibration was a bit off-center, and the lack of a right-click area annoying—I'm going to attack this later when I have some spare time, but for now, I have a bluetooth mouse.
Did I say the Unity desktop got up my nose? It gets up my nose. It gets painfully far up my nose when combined with Amazon product placement ads. Luckily these can be removed cleanly by uninstalling the package that provides this functionality (but IIRC in 13.10 the package name is no longer unity-lens-shopping; I found it by skimming the list of unity packages installed on my system, and really should have taken written notes). But Unity is still a mickey mouse level program launcher aimed at non-techies; it's as if the folks at Canonical have tried to copy the toy-like appearance of Mac OS X without actually providing the underlying shortcuts and power tools that make it acceptable to serious folks who like to get stuff done.
Luckily salvation isn't far away: one sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop later and I had XFCE 4 instead of Unity. Again, some tweaking is needed; but at least it's a real desktop.
Installing Scrivener went relatively smoothly as per the instructions; I haven't set up spell checking yet, but it runs okay and can open large projects. It's Scrivener 1.5, as opposed to the 2.5 release current on the Mac, so not all the newer features are available, but it can still open projects from the Mac environment, which is good.
Other stuff: I installed Dropbox, of course, for file synchronisation. And I pointed Thunderbird at my email accounts, and set up Firefox synchronisation too. LibreOffice I'm leaving for now, but will in due course copy my profile over from the Mac to see what works.
All in all, about a day's work got me to a point where I was within sight of a working environment. I haven't selected a password management tool to replace SplashID on the Mac yet, and there are some rough edges—a non-working .desktop launcher file for Scrivener, me trying to get my head around how to best set up XFCE for my needs, importing music files from iTunes.
But the surprising thing is how much stuff just worked out of the box.
During the installation process, Ubuntu asked if I wanted to use the correct proprietary wifi chipset driver (a Broadcomm device), then installed it and connected to my household WPA2-secured wifi network without any fuss. The bluetooth wizard picked up the mouse easily enough and after a minor trial-and-error fumble to work out what default password to use, paired with it just fine. The screen worked perfectly first time. Audio? Just worked, thanks. USB ditto. When I close the lid it suspends, and when I open the lid it wakes up again. This is not the Linux I'm used to, where installing it on a laptop involved lots of swearing over recalcitrant device drivers and late night custom kernel builds. I could actually work on this platform. I'd have to spend a working week (rather than the single day so far) fine-tuning everything, but at the end of the day I'd have a Linux laptop where everything I care about just works. And it's fast. Boot to desktop in about ten seconds. Everything loads in a flash. Linux is a relatively austere operating system by the standards of a recent Mac OS X release, or Windows 8; on a dual core i7 laptop with 4Gb of RAM and a big SSD, it feels like greased lightning.
Postscript: No, I am not going to migrate to Linux this year. As I said, I'm not going there unless Apple force me to walk the plank at gun-point. I will in due course vape the Airbook and shuffle it off to a new home with someone who appreciates OSX. But in the meantime, it's an interesting experiment to try. Newer hardware might be less forgiving (I gather there are issues with running Linux on a Haswell Mac, and even bigger issues on machines with retina displays such as the Macbook Pro I'm typing this blog entry on), but the combination of a lightweight operating system and last-but-one-generation hardware delivers perfectly acceptable performance for my productivity purposes. And I can sleep easier, knowing that I'm not locked in.