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My relationship with Apple laptops and OSX: 2004♥ — 2013 :-( — 2015†.

tl;dr: Apple has stretched my ethical boundaries too far, so I decided to move on. I am now giving Android a shot in combination with a touch screen. So far, lovin’ it.

The issue started when Apple started requiring paid digital signatures on custom-built applications to hush pop-up warnings in OS X 10.7. That was a couple of years ago, and started to irritate me no end: that was a clear signal that indie open source apps were no longer welcome in Apple’s ideal vision of their ecosystem. This, together with the nascent and insistent push for iCloud (bye bye privacy) and the Mac App Store (welcome censhorship), caused me to stop upgrading and I stayed with 10.6. From my vantage point, I then saw how the BSD userland became increasingly polluted by all matters of Apple specifics (bye bye code portability) in newer versions of OS X, and I knew that the chances of me ever upgrading were decreasing with each new release.

Two years later, Snow Leopard is becoming antiquated, we are 4 major OSX releases further and an increasing number of my work tools are leaving 10.6 compatibility behind. My work environment requires newer stuff, and in summer 2014 I found myself tired to spend more hacking hours trying to keep my 3 years old work environment relevant.

And so I started to think about replacements.

The main issue back then and now is that the computer I want does not exist. To be specific, I want a well-engineered, robust portable computer with 6+hours battery time [1], a BSD kernel [2] with top-notch power management [3] (incl. properly working hibernation), solid support for mobile networking [4] and hot plugging [5] (external screens and USB devices), a well-supported, thoroughly documented POSIX userland [6] with all sources available online, and an overall well-integrated user experience [7]. Unfortunately, there is no combination of hardware+software currently on the market, nor manually hackable in the time I have available, that proposes this.

Combination [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]
Macbook + OSX :-( :-) :-) :-) :-) :-( :-(
Macbook + FreeBSD :-) :- :-( :- :- :-) :-)
Macbook + Ubuntu :- :-) :- :- :- :-) :-
Thinkpad + FreeBSD :-) :- :- :-) :- :-) :-)
Thinkpad + Ubuntu :- :-) :-) :-) :- :-) :-)

As I toyed with the various compromises, the idea of a Thinkpad computer became appealing, likely in combination with a hypervisor that would let me run both a Linux distribution and a BSD system natively and side-by-side.

There was however one specific use case opposing friction to any change, and keeping me faithful to my antiquated OS X install: the program OmniGraffle. This is a program to help me draw diagrams; it can’t do anything else, but oh boy, does it do that well! I am not married to specific software programs but OmniGraffle has this specific balance of insane versality, quality and effectiveness which I have not yet found anywhere else, and which I have grown insanely fond of. My work requires a steady production of visual figures of different kinds, and I would experience the loss of OmniGraffle-equivalent diagramming productivity as a great career setback.

What options would I then have, should I become the proud owner of a conventional laptop? What Linux distributions have to offer in the direction of diagram authoring is laughable; the only “serious” option I was still considering was to run a stripped down install of OSX 10.6 in a virtual machine, just to keep using OmniGraffle. But that option was also weak, as I can easily see OmniGroup dropping support for 10.6 in the near future.

And so I stalled, concerned about my diagramming options.

The engineering and visual quality of Lumia smartphones an Microsoft’s Surface running Win8+ and the embedded/mobile version of Microsoft Visio lured me for a while, and I did thus give the Windows Mobile and Win8+ due consideration. However, my requirement for strong POSIX compatibility still trumps my possible interest for Visio, and so I let that boat sail.

The months passed by and I had still no solution in mind, until my friend Maarten caught my attention: for his study, impervious to prejudice, he adopted a tablet computer and found himself satisfied by Android. Knowing that his requirements are close to mine, I started to enquire about how his set-up would fit my bill.

The key insight that quickly dawned on me: most of my diagramming productivity enabled by OmniGraffle would also be enabled by the combination of a touch screen with a simpler application.

This is because I need to produce a lot of “just good enough” diagrams in a short time, and relatively few intricate diagrams. The diagramming speed I would lose from the lack of OmniGraffle’s powerful UI controls, I could gain easily with the standard finger gestures recognized by most multi-touch drawing applications.

With this out of the way, good support for a touch interface [8] became my proxy requirement for diagramming facilities. And so I extended my table:

Combination [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]
Thinkpad touch + FreeBSD :-) :- :- :-) :- :-) :-) :-(
Thinkpad touch + Ubuntu :- :-) :-) :-) :- :-) :-) :-
Surface + Win8+ :-) :-( :-) :-) :-) :-( :-) :-)
Tablet + Android :-) :- :-) :-) :-) :-( :-) :-)
Tablet + Ubuntu Touch :-) :- :-) :-) :- :-) :-( :-)
Tablet + Android + Ubuntu (chrooted) :-) :- :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-)

And so, at last, I felt I was getting somewhere.

A couple weeks later, I am happy to report that I was able to transition nearly all my work activity to my new equipment. The Macbook will thus likely retire peacefully before the summer.

On the way there I found a couple of pleasant surprises:

  • handwriting recognition has become REALLY good. I don’t use it, but am impressed nonetheless.
  • the ability to draw with a finger or a stylus is an amazing communication tool during presentations.
  • using fingers to control the UI is amazingly more natural than using a mouse cursor. The positive feedback is so strong that I now instinctively reach the screen rather than the mouse even on other computers.
  • most of these devices come with an surprisingly (and comfortably) large amount of internal memory.
  • a regular GNU/Linux userland in a chrooted filesystem (currently Unbutu 13.10) is a very pleasant environment to work in.

And a couple of things that required some homework to figure out but ended up as trivial as on OS X:

  • editing the global keymap (yay to using Caps Lock as an additional Control key).
  • using ActivityMonitor to open documents from the command line (like OS X’s “open”).
  • using LiveDisplay for gamma control to sleep better at night (like f.lux on other computers).

I am still discovering and have yet a neutral perspective about forward compatibility. I can see how the app ecosystem is evolving super fast and am thus careful to store my data in open formats, with ample back-ups, perhaps much more carefully than I was doing on my previous set-up. But the experience is overall positive.