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Why Install Linux on Your Mac?

by Giles Turnbull
11/30/2004

Yeah, why? Your typical modern Mac comes with all the Unixy goodness you could ever need, right? But there are a bunch of Linux PPC distributions that you can, if you feel the need, install on your Apple hardware.

In my efforts to answer the big "Why?" question, I contacted Kai Staats, cofounder and CEO of TerraSoft Solutions. I asked him questions he's been asked a thousand times before about why anyone should install Linux on their Mac. I'm sure the last thing he wanted to do was go over the same old ground with some ignorant journalist. But he did anyway. I owe him my thanks upfront for putting up with my irritating intrusions into his schedule.

My intention was to get inside the heads of the small-but-contented Linux-on-Mac community. I wanted to know what made them want to do the things they do to their computers.

Just Look Around You

If you've attended any of the major geek get-togethers of the last couple of years, you can't have failed to notice the surge in use of Apple hardware and Mac OS X. Since it is based so solidly on Unix, yet with an attractive GUI on top, OS X has appealed to a broad range of programmers and technical writers; especially the kind who have no affection for the Wintel way of doing things.

Many of them stuck with Mac OS X because it worked. Lots wanted to explore alternatives, and install their own choice of OS. Our very own Edd Dumbill was leading the pack back in 2002, when he installed an earlier release of Debian on his iBook, simply because he found that the iBook had as good a spec as he wanted, for a price favorably comparable to typical PC hardware. As Dumbill said in his article at the time, "My interest was piqued."

These days there are even more people who've had their interest piqued in the same way, and I wanted to discover how. Here's what I found out along the way.

Assumptions, Myths, and Realities

Here's a widely quoted assumption: Mac OS X is essentially desktop Linux. In some respects this is true, but the differences between Mac OS X and true Linux distributions are important ones.

OS X costs money. Linux is free. Mac OS X can only be customized within the constraints placed upon it by Apple. Linux can be customized to an extraordinary degree, with the right knowledge. Mac OS X requires Apple hardware (most of the time). Linux is the same whether its running on a PowerBook, a PC, or yeah, even an Xbox.

Mac OS X has made great strides in bringing a Unix-based environment to a consumer user-base, and has influenced Linux developers in the process, but it should not be treated in the same way. It remains a commercial, proprietary system. Just one that happens to rest upon several free, open source technologies.

But no matter how familiar you are with Linux, if you run Mac OS X you are not in a position to delve into its heart and meddle with its innermost workings. Want to mess around with your Linux kernel? Go right ahead, and good luck to you. But Mac OS X remains closed to everyone outside Apple.

It follows, then, that if having the freedom to mess with your operating system matters to you, running Linux on your Apple hardware is going to be a better choice than running Mac OS X, no matter how Unix-like it is. And that's a good first answer to our opening question.

Another assumption: Mac OS X is easy to use; Linux is hard to use, especially for newbies. Well, I put this to the test recently. I showed a friend a Linux desktop (it was Lycoris running on an old PC, in case you're wondering), and then my Mac OS X desktop. My friend had only ever used Windows computers before. Guess which one she found easier to use? That's right, Lycoris.

Because so many Linux distros and window environments have made such an effort to make former Windows users feel comfortable, some of them look so much like Windows as to be almost indistinguishable. Windows users see them and they do feel comfortable. Everything is where they expect it to be, everything behaves the way they are used to it behaving. They feel relaxed about using something that feels familiar.

My friend was not at all relaxed when faced with Mac OS X. Why couldn't she right-click on things? Why couldn't she copy-and-paste? (Using the Control key is something wired into her fingers -- when I pointed out the Command key, she just laughed and said it was ridiculous to have another modifier key to learn). There were other confusions, but all of it boiled down to the fact that, as a lifelong Windows user, Mac OS X was completely alien, but consumer-level Linux felt almost the same.

So you could argue that there are two compelling reasons (although by no means the only ones) for running Linux on Mac hardware: (1) It is far more customizable for those who care and know how, and (2) it feels more like Windows than Mac OS X does, for those who care and have no wish to know how.

What is Linux on Mac Actually Like?

I had to find out the answer to this question, so I installed Yellow Dog Linux 3.0 (YDL) on a spare PowerBook G4, just to see what would happen.

Almost everything went according to plan. The installer is simple to follow and understand, and makes very few technical demands on even the newbiest of users.

Soon after my test run, Terra Soft released Yellow Dog version 4.0, based on Fedora Core 2.2. It includes KDE 3.3 and GNOME 2.6.0, OpenOffice.org 1.1.1, Mozilla 1.7, glibc 2.3.3, and gcc 3.3.3. Important note: This new release fixes many of the problems I encountered while testing with version 3.0. Keep that in mind if you try out Yellow Dog after reading this; your experience may well be quite different from mine.

My installation on a Mac laptop was pretty straightforward, especially since I had no need to keep any Mac OS X partitions and data. The boxed product came as six disks -- three install, three source -- so all I had to do is stick Disk 1 into the optical drive, and reboot holding down C.

My install was only marred by a problem with OS X recognizing the display. Running Xautoconfig didn't seem to help, and for awhile the machine only worked in text mode. After another look it turned out that by running Xautoconfig in safe mode, then with the -fbdev switch, forced it to write a new XF86Config file. After that, the GUI zipped into life.

Sadly, Apple has not released source for its software modem, and, as Staats puts it, "Reverse engineering is a bit hit'n'miss." As a result, there's no support for the built-in modem. If you want connectivity, you need to supply an external USB modem or have a network. That said, there are some soft-modem drivers available, but these are not guaranteed to work on all machines.

These little problems aside, I was up and running in Yellow Dog in a remarkably short time. Then I had to deal with the question -- now what?

Screenshot showing various applications running on Yellow Dog Linux
Here's what my screen looked like shortly after the first boot.

Another screenshot of Yellow Dog Linux in action
Here's what it looked like some time later.

The essentials of any new operating system are self-explanatory to anyone with a passing knowledge of computers. Somewhere there will be some kind of file manager; somewhere, a CD player; somewhere, a text editor and a shell or terminal. There will almost certainly be an application management system, like a dock (note lowercase 'd' there) or bar with icons on it. All of these things are present in YDL/KDE and make perfect sense, even to a newbie. I was able to get up-to-speed, exploring applications and writing notes, in no time at all.

OpenOffice.org is included too, so if I'd wanted to start creating proper business-style documents for sharing on a network, I could have done that too.

A Personal Perspective

I found Linux a delightful change, but sometimes frustrating. Every now and again, something would Just Not Work, and I found it almost impossible to diagnose the problem. Examples include music CDs that I couldn't play, applications that wouldn't start, and mysterious slowdowns (30 seconds to launch a terminal window?). The frustration came when I suspected the solution to a problem might involve a small tweak of a text file somewhere, but that it might take hours of Googling or browsing discussion groups, to find which tweak to make to which file.

The delightful things included the very extensive Control Center, enabling me to manage pretty much every aspect of the system setup and appearance. Also, the perfect integration of hardware tools, such as the PowerBook's function-key volume and brightness controls, which worked without fuss, and the clever use of the F11 key as a second mouse button, something that took a little getting used to but was easy to cope with.

System maintenance was something that bothered me. A task I might do everyday on OS X, like downloading and installing a new app, seemed time-consuming and difficult. Even using YDL's built-in software update program yum to fetch and install new software automatically didn't work as smoothly as I had hoped.

Overall, for someone who has spent years growing accustomed to the Mac way of doing things, the system presented a number of challenges. Even using YDL for a short time showed me that there would be a learning curve if I ever chose to run it full-time. Stuff does Just Work in Linux; but it Just Works in a different way.

Which brings us back to the original starting point for this article. What motivation would a happy Mac user have for switching to a Linux distribution like YDL? Why face that learning curve?

The best person to answer the question is Staats himself. But as I pointed out right at the start of this article, he has been asked this a thousand times. Every day. For years.

The Best Answer Is Usually the Simplest

Staats insists that Yellow Dog Linux is not aimed at any one particular type of user. YDL is designed to be a system that Just Works, the same way that OS X Just Works. You don't need to take his word for it, either. A glance through some of the user-submitted stories received by Terra Soft shows just how much some ordinary people, many of them newbies who have never encountered Linux before, have adapted to, and adopted, YDL with a passion.

He says of Yellow Dog, "CDs, CD-RWs, USB cameras and memory sticks, FireWire drives, USB and networked printers, for the most part, just work.

"The installer is, in my opinion, superior to that of Mac OS X with more room for interaction, choice, and an intelligent layer of user-defined setup that enables a truly custom install.

"While Mac OS X offers a lot of eye candy, Linux too offers translucent menus, swimming images, and colorful interfaces -- if the user desires them. Linux offers a great deal more options, more levels of customization."

And how does Staats himself use the OS?

"I have a 15" aluminum PowerBook. Never thought I could give up a full desktop with multiple drives and more room for expansion ... but now I can't see how I would ever go back. Love it.

"I use Yellow Dog Linux 99.9 percent of the time. I use OS X (under Mac-on-Linux) for audio editing (I am recording the life stories of my grandparents) and as a temp backup of my YDL side (mounted from YDL). That's about it. And while high-quality audio-editing software is available for Linux on x86, I have not had a chance to explore what is available for PowerPC Linux or what it would take to recompile. A good weekend project."

Then we come to the crux of making the decision:

"Honestly, it comes down to 1) how the OS is being used, and 2) personal preference. To the first: Apple has tied a great deal of relatively inflexible GUI around their UNIX core, rendering it less capable of scaling down to a very small footprint nor up to a very large cluster without a good deal of effort.

"Yes, OS X will run on 1,000 nodes, but the performance is going to be less than that of a Linux-based system with no GUI and a bare-minimum node image.

"As our web pages state, Linux is 100 percent open source. The end-user has control of everything, not just the bottom 15 percent.

"Linux is Linux is Linux on all architectures. Learn it once, use it everywhere. This enables end-users of both the geek and non-geek nature to sit down at a machine and not care what the CPU is. Just get to work. This also enables relatively simple code development which can be migrated across any system. This means developing on a Mac for a PowerPC embedded device without having to recompile ... or running Linux on your PDA just because it is there. I believe end-users will find a sense of empowerment in this, even if they are not programmers, because they at least have a sense of what is under the hood."

Just How Much Control do You Want?

There you have it. If you want some element of Linux -- access to certain tools and development environment capabilities, for example -- what you require is already built into Mac OS X.

But if you wish to go further, to take maximum control of your computer, and do so on some of the best quality hardware around, Linux makes a lot of sense on a Mac. It offers the kind of low-cost, easy-to-use, properly scalable system that Apple's commercial offering just can't match. It offers a new lease on life to older hardware that struggles to cope with the endless round of OS upgrades.

And let's not forget that Yellow Dog is by no means the only option for people wishing to run Linux on their Mac. You can also choose from Mandrake, Debian, newcomer Ubuntu, and many others.

Tempted?

Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.


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