Sometimes you stumble across a decent system, still working fine, but getting old. If the price is right, you might take it anyway. For most people in non-profit work, which is like running a business on a very poor budget, this is about the only way to get enough computers to get the job done. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an eMac running Panther. It cost almost nothing, so I took it.
Having worked in public schools, I'd used a few Macs. The old joke is, "I have no problem with Macs. It's the Mac users I don't care for." Most of what you read on the Net either assumes you know and love Mac, or avoids them altogether. Neutrality is pretty rare, so there isn't a large body of work in that vein on the Net to which I can refer. I'm not thrilled with my eMac, but I knew it was part Unix under the hood, so I hoped I could make it useful.
In my world, a computer is useful only to the degree it does Unix. There's also not a lot of help out there for Unix folks trying to get used to Macs. For one thing, Panther (Mac OS X 10.3) did a pretty good job of hiding it's Unix capabilities. I already expected the file system would be different, and it was. I expected some shortage of my favorite Unix applications, but didn't realize so many folks had simply abandoned support for Panther. It ended up being difficult enough to justify begging Apple for a reviewer's copy of Leopard (10.5). Turns out Leopard does Unix a lot better.
My eMac was just barely up to the requirements:
The single-button mouse is a testimony to just how recalcitrant some companies are -- the eMac's pre-Mighty Mouse pointer had but one button and the single button trackpad remains even in current Mac laptops. For Unix people, it's not a usable mouse without three buttons. If I can't paste with the middle button, I don't use the system much. Sadly, even with a multi-button mouse the Mac lacks support for mouse-controlled pasting. Major deficiency, but I'll pretend for now it won't matter. I'm using a cheap MS Basic Optical. The screen, speakers, optical drive, etc., are all the standard built-ins, and upgrading anything inside the case of this beast is major surgery.
The upgrade from Panther to Leopard was uneventful. It's one of the those things Mac seems to have gotten right a long time ago. My settings, documents and account profile were unchanged. The appearance was a little nicer, but the bloat factor was obvious to anyone who had touched it before the upgrade. I note with some dismay it went from taking just over 10GB of disk space to more than double that at 22GB. Over half the drive is already used up just running the basic OS. Thankfully, a clean install of Leopard worked out much better -- just 7GB of disk space used. Apple strongly recommends against all the standard building tools on my hardware, so I needed to find a package source for the Unix tools not built into the OS.
There are lots of ways to get Unix packages. Since I can't take the
obvious method of building them myself from source, it was time to read
up on what exists already. The Fink and MacPorts projects attempt to
solve this. Fink is basically Debian's
apt-get system for
installing packages, with added tools for building from source. The
problem is it requires all those builder's tools Mac tells me I can't
install on my eMac because it isn't powerful enough. Further, Fink
doesn't seem ready for Leopard. MacPorts requires the X server, and I
have no interest in that. Mac's GUI is just fine, thank you. Besides,
there appears some intermittent trouble with things like mixed
libraries, duplications, and so forth. I'm not willing to run those
But why do I have to download and install a big bunch of stuff before I can download and install a few packages? Does no one build these packages to install by any standard Mac mechanism? I found a decent package for Joe's Own Editor and installed that just so I could write this article on my eMac. There are a few Open Source projects offering standard Unix apps for Mac as is, but they are limited in number.
Coming to Mac from Unix, You'll have to learn an entirely new set of
keystrokes for the most part, especially in the Terminal. For example,
PGDN and PGUP require holding down the SHIFT key to get what you
normally expect. Hitting the HOME key the first time was a real thrill,
suspending the application and taking me back to the prompt. Never
fear, simply hitting ENTER right away takes you back to the
application. Just remember to hold that SHIFT key down, and the gray
keys should work okay. There was precious little information on tuning
.joerc for my peferred keystrokes. It appears in
Terminal, almost none of the F-keys are free. Since I prefer to code
Joe to use them a great deal, it was a little frustrating. Still, the
original Joe keystrokes do work, so it's not too bad. However, anyone
coming from just about every other type of Unix out there will take
some time getting used to it.
Most of my favorite networking tools appear to be included:
whois, host, nslookup, tcpdump, etc. As you would expect,
almost everything inherits the peculiarities of FreeBSD. However, for
root, you'll need to do it the Ubuntu
sudo. Getting a standard
su is a rather convoluted path via places you'd
never look. Mac users, like Ubuntu users, insist you shouldn't
want to use
su. Sometimes you'll get the
impression Mac gurus are about as snotty as Unix gurus can be.
When I've gone looking for Mac help, it is often somewhat more time consuming because, again, almost no one thinks in terms of Unix users adapting to Mac. Terminology is the major problem when going to your favorite search engine. The answers are out there, and many quite well written, but you'll often be stumped by the same terms meaning something totally different.
Naturally, the Mac GUI is pretty snazzy, as are the GUI tools most people are likely to want. My primary complaint is there is all this stuff for graphics and social networking, but standard business applications are few and expensive. If you can afford iWork, that's probably okay, but it's not in my budget range. I chose NeoOffice, an adaptation of OpenOffice, because it was already fully ported to the Mac GUI. I see no reason to install the X-server, since I don't particularly like it on Unix. Everybody uses X because it's the only thing we have in Unix Land. That is the one part of this whole thing which could tempt me to switch completely to Mac.
However, at the end of the day, that won't happen as long as Macs cost what they do. I've already noted I don't have enough space on this the eMac's drive to do very much, and building custom applications is not an option. This aging eMac was just a fluke; good used Macs still cost twice what I paid for my dual-core home-built Linux box. It matters not how much I get for my money if I don't have that much money. For any operation with little to no budget, especially non-profits, there won't be much Mac use. Still, if you stumble across one in your range, it could turn out to be useful as a Unix machine.
Expect more on this topic as I poke and prod further. And I fully expect scolding from a bunch of Mac-heads, but nothing new nor compelling is likely to appear. I've already established my disdain for OS orthodoxy in my exploration of FreeBSD.
Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.