Leopard as Unix

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 5:13 AM

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:

  • 1.25 Ghz G4 CPU
  • 512MB RAM
  • 40GB harddrive

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 risks.

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 my .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 anything requiring root, you'll need to do it the Ubuntu way, using sudo. Getting a standard root login via 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.

Article Path: Home: Technology: Leopard as Unix

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23 comments posted so far.

Re: Leopard as Unix

If you really want to use su, why not do sudo su - ?

Posted by Timothy - Jun 21, 2008 | 4:16 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Thanks, Tim, but that’s a minor issue, actually. I was pointing out the sort of thing a Unix user would run into using a Mac. Not a cry for help on my part, just warning other Unix users.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Jun 21, 2008 | 10:16 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

you cant afford iwork and business apps are few and far? iwork is £55 and office is about £290

Posted by bob - Jun 25, 2008 | 3:03 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

“However, for anything requiring root, you’ll need to do it the Ubuntu way, using sudo.”

Err, that should be Ubuntu does it the OSX way, shouldn’t it? OSX precedes Ubuntu by 4 years. As a “Mac-Head” and a UNIX geek, these kinds of statements seem to irk me. And, as far as looking for good Mac help, I agree most of it is slanted towards the typical Mac crowd, but I find a lot of good info geared towards the typical UNIX sysadmin out there as well. It’s nice to know that Jordan Hubbard is in charge of the BSD technology group at Apple ;)

Posted by iank - Jun 25, 2008 | 3:45 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Using Leopard as a *nix machine was one of the big draws for me as well. Having used Linux since the mid 90’s, I really do enjoy having a better GUI but still having the *nix guts.

Posted by bamf - Jun 25, 2008 | 3:52 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Need Mac Unix help? http://forums.macosxhints.com/ Choose the Unix - General forum. If you can’t get what you need there, they can tell you where to get it.

Posted by Chris - Jun 25, 2008 | 4:04 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Here is a good source for Unix folks.

Mac OS X Tiger for Unix Geeks, Third Edition O’REILLY.

Have you requested copies of iWorks as a non-profit?

Hard drive space is easy, add an external firewire drive and load’er up.

Don’t forget to upgrade the RAM, cheap…

Have fun.

Posted by MTBOY - Jun 25, 2008 | 4:12 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

I have to second MTBOY; I’ve used a PowerBook of your eMac’s vintage as my primary computer for the past four years, and upping the RAM to 1 GB makes it a completely different machine… and that old RAM’s really cheap on eBay.

Posted by SamK - Jun 25, 2008 | 6:32 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

If Xcode 3 won’t install why not download Xcode 2.5?


That way you can build Fink as per their Leopard instructions, or get MacPorts (which doesn’t actually require X11 for everything).

Another thing you could do is remove architecture code (strip x86 out - you usually don’t need it) and language files. That can save about 4GB.

Posted by James Madley - Jun 25, 2008 | 9:32 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

“For Unix people, it’s not a usable mouse without three buttons.”

Real “Unix people” go straight to the terminal and use the CLI! :)

“Leopard does Unix a lot better” [than Panther]

Ridiculous. They’re both BSD underneath. Leopard just adds a bunch of user-level goodies.

“Getting a standard root login via su is a rather convoluted path via places you’d never look.”

Yeah, like the Help menu. This is a very simple procedure.

“Everybody uses X because it’s the only thing we have in Unix Land.”

I don’t think this guy even knows what Unix is.

Posted by Eric - Jun 25, 2008 | 9:52 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

I fail to see the wisdom on this article …

Are you saying that Unix guys will be “confused” with the Mac?? Was it less confusing when it was NeXTStep?

As far as the one button mouse… buy a Logitech 4 button mouse if that is what you want.

X-Windows is more than just a display thingy.. it is a protocol … Session layer in the OSI model, right there with NFS, RPC, etc. Maybe that is WHY a lot of REAL Unix users use it, not only those Linux Unix-Wannabes …

Posted by Richard - Jun 26, 2008 | 1:52 AM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Use the help system and look up “enabling root user” - OS X has this account disabled by default.

As others have suggested, stripping out the language files (available in the install options or doable by hand) and using a free tool such as Xslimmer will get you back your drive space. Memory would really help out as well.


Posted by Some Mac Guy - Jun 26, 2008 | 1:54 AM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Regarding the multi-button mouse, just get one, and check out the mouse pref pane, in the system preferences, you can set it to do lots of things, also if it has drivers for OS X, like my logitec laptop mouse, you can install that and it’ll let you customize what the buttons do.

Just set the middle button do do Command-C, for copy :)

hope that helps

Posted by ss2cire - Jun 26, 2008 | 5:15 AM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Oh, how I love the roasts. Keep `em coming, folks.

For those of you who actually addressed the issues I raised, thank you. I was looking forward to your help. Articles like this are nothing without ribbing and corrections.

Regarding the mouse paste issue: It works even in the CLI, Eric, and I used it a lot on my console-only BSD machines for pasting long strings of text. Using the native GUI drivers to make the middle button do “Cmd+V” breaks other useful functions, so it’s easier to simply drop that mouse paste habit. Without an independent mouse clipboard, it won’t be the same.

Check back as I continue the migration test. Perhaps I can paint a bigger target on myself for your barbs.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Jun 26, 2008 | 12:08 PM

What does it mean to

Maybe I’m just missing something fundamental… Can you help me understand what it means, exactly, to “do Unix”? And how one system might “do Unix” better than another? I don’t understand what the purpose of your article is— what target are you trying to achieve?

It’s partly that I’m kind of distracted by all of the talk about mice and keyboards… I thought Unix was a family of operating systems. That family includes OS X— which is a Unix variant. Talking about moving from Unix to Mac makes about as much sense as talking about moving from Unix to Linux.

I’ve steered clear of the package installers, and do my builds from source. You should be able to at least force gcc to install from the developer tools. For what it’s worth, I haven’t found more than a small handful of packages I couldn’t ./configure;make;sudo make install

alias makeMeRoot=’sudo su -’

Posted by Analog Kid - Jun 27, 2008 | 2:27 AM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Me thinks someone just wants some extra traffic to their site……..

The main point you seem to be making is ‘Why can’t OSX be more like I want it to?’, which is just a little bit to close to the attitude which you seem to be ridiculing. Mac heads, PC guys, Unix guru’s, linux nutters, we’re all in our own little worlds. At least there is some choice.

As for the cost, you cannot compare your home made tower PC with a Mac Pro. With minimal hardware knowledge it is obvious why. There may be room in Apple’s lineup for a consumer tower, but that’s another argument…

Posted by the other apple user - Jun 27, 2008 | 1:58 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Okay, let’s try this from a different angle.

Small businessman or non-profit operator likes BSD and Linux. Stumbles across an aging Mac, dirt cheap or free. Yeah, we all know it’s a Unix variant, but he has never messed with Mac much. How much of a hassle will this average *nix user have trying to bring his skills to bear on said Mac? “Doing Unix” is just an expression for the collection of expectations the average Linux/BSD user has when he approaches a computer. Not the expert technician, nor the OS guru, but the guy who simply uses computers for his work. It’s our favorite tool, but it’s still just a tool.

Open for Business began pretty much as a small business webzine. I have long experience with non-profit, so I’m adding that angle to the ostensible purpose for which we exist.

I’m not running for public office, nor do I even pretend any great expertise. It’s just a hobby. I love doing this, and emails I get indicate some of my articles are helping other folks with similar backgrounds and similar uses for the computers they happen to have.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Jun 30, 2008 | 12:28 AM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Ok, that makes things a little more clear— you’re not looking at how well Macs “do Unix” but you’re looking at how similar OS X is to Linux. More specifically, you’re looking at how similar OS X on an eMac is to Linux on some other favorite piece of hardware which is why mice and keyboards dominate the discussion.

That’s a legitimate angle to take, particularly because you’re right in noticing that most online sources aren’t aimed at Linux people exploring Darwin. There is a lot of Unix help for Mackies, but it’s not what gets the most attention.

I think you’d get more sympathy though if you didn’t sound like you were coming out spoiling for a fight. Statements like “And I fully expect scolding from a bunch of Mac-heads, but nothing new nor compelling is likely to appear” are a magnet for abuse, as is reveling in the “roast”. Appealing to the typical “no selection and too expensive” argument on software was a bit disingenuous when you went with a port of Open Office— the standard, free, and quite capable, Unix enterprise suite.

Your lose use of the term Unix is equally likely to get abuse from the *nix folks. Leopard is Unix, while Linux and BSD are not— they’re Unix-like. It’s silly, but it’s a trademark issue and trademark owners are required by law to fight silly wars.

Burrowing to the command line in any Unix variant is not for the faint of heart. Don’t know that you need to be an expert, or a guru, but you’ll need to be adept at man, which and Google. The Apple knowledge base is quite helpful, but doesn’t often show up in Google results.

When you get past the keyboard and mouse idiosyncrasies, and a bit more comfortable with System Preferences, you should have fun with the unique aspects of Darwin itself. The replacement of cron, xinetd and rc by launchd, for instance, is a substantial change.

What do you use your systems for on a daily basis?

Posted by Analog Kid - Jul 01, 2008 | 11:34 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

Disingenuous? More like having fun at the expense of purists. I don’t take myself that seriously.

My daily use is mostly research and writing, largely academic. All my printers are dot-matrix, and I print very little. I have a substantial library of my own work in text and HTML, and keep reference copies of stuff by others I need for my own use. I require a Bible text I can search. That business with the mouse clipboard is a major tool. Joe and Cream/Vim for most things, as I code HTML on the fly (static only). Lyx for large printing projects, and OO.org for compatibility only.

While I focus on my peculiar brand of religion mostly, my personal interests are too wide to summarize. Social Sciences figure large, and I enjoy reading about Net security. I enjoy the occasional take down of spammers, malware distributers, and such, taking a few risks in places I’m likely to visit. I need multiple different types of browsers for this: lynx, elinks, w3m, links2, FireFox, Opera, Konqueror, plus wget (or fetch). I’m cagey about graphics, don’t much like media stuff, and insist on fine-grained cookie control. I also research the ongoing noise of a lot of “underground” political sites.

I may eventually fiddle with running a LAN server, or even self-host my online religious activities. Depends on how much interest it gets in the next few months.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Jul 02, 2008 | 12:51 AM

Re: Leopard as Unix

cough Debian ppc cough

Posted by Alan - Jul 06, 2008 | 5:26 AM

Re: Leopard as Unix

“However, for anything requiring root, you’ll need to do it the Ubuntu way, using sudo. “

root doesn’t have a password by default..

“sudo password root” wow, now su works. that was really convoluted and hard.

Don’t write articles about Unix when you don’t actually know Unix. Middle button click? Come on. Lets not even go there.

Posted by Dillon - Jul 07, 2008 | 4:44 AM

Re: Leopard as Unix

So, I am delighted to find that my Mighty Mouse will indeed paste (in X) if I set the scroll ball to “Button 3” in the mouse System Preferences.

Posted by Ali - Jul 07, 2008 | 7:54 PM

Re: Leopard as Unix

I have been using Unix as my primary desktop environment since 1998, when I started working at HP. I have used Linux since late 2000 and only now in 2008 have I switched to using OSX. I took the leap because I needed mature, reliable support for office apps and formats. These were an instant win on Tiger and Leopard.

However, trying to use OSX as I used to use Linux has been very painful. The whole experience is very dumbed down and does not have that fast bleeding-edge open-source feeling that you get from Linux. I have noticed many linuxen are taking similar tracks in order to appeal to the masses. I hope they don’t diverge too far from the basic principles of what made Unix good. As soon as I become dependant on the distro to make core parts of the operating system usable, I start to loose faith. I don’t want to loose the faith. :)

Posted by Christo, Spiration - Jul 16, 2008 | 8:00 PM