Windows 7

290px-Windows_7 Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 7, has been released to manufacturing following a successful release candidate. Windows 7 really is what Windows Vista should have been in the first place.

Although I’ve been ensconced in the OS X and Linux world for some years now, I installed the last release candidate in a virtual machine and had a play with it the other week and I have to say that I’m reasonably impressed. Microsoft may have finally got their act together over their historically and notoriously awful operating system.

Windows Vista was a terrible embarrassment to Microsoft. Although Windows XP was long in the tooth, it was, once patched up with all the necessary service packs and software updates, a stable, useable and relatively lean operating system; a workhorse that served most of the world’s desktop computing needs. Windows Vista, on the other hand, was an absolutely awful replacement for it, burdening users with stiff system requirements and features that were unnecessary, awkward and to an extent crippling with regards to day to day usability. Because of this, uptake of Windows Vista was poor at best, people simply preferred Windows XP. Manufacturers started to offer “downgrade” options on new PCs, which is frankly absurd. Microsoft had to extend XP’s sales cutoff dates over and over again due to the demand.

In reality, Windows 7 is not much more than a giant service pack on top of Windows Vista rather than an entirely new operating system. But it’s a wide-reaching service pack that puts all the wrongs right and it is important that Microsoft give it a new name/major version number in order that it can be distanced from its abominable predecessor.

overview_hero20090608 Parallels can be drawn between Windows Vista/Windows 7 and Mac OS X Leopard/Snow Leopard, the latter being Apple’s forthcoming major operating system update which promises refinement on the existing operating system rather than any new features. Most notably it will halve the disk space requirements due to Apple dropping PPC support and thus an end to the need for huge universal binaries.

However, the two operating systems continue to differ greatly when it comes to price. Apple will charge $29 for a single Snow Leopard upgrade, whilst Microsoft will want $219 for an upgrade from Vista. That price is for the “Ultimate” version, which I’m using for comparison because Apple doesn’t have all this “Home, Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate” nonsense, they just have one version with everything included. It’s a staggering price difference, Microsoft want nearly eight times what Apple want. In this regard, Microsoft haven’t learnt anything.

As good as Windows 7 is, it’s not going to tempt me away from the Mac OS X world. There are various reasons for this. Firstly, it’s a little bit “too little, too late” from Microsoft for me, but mostly it’s because I feel much more “at home” with OS X due to its UNIX underpinnings. It’s not even about the Apple hardware that makes me a “fanboy” in this regard; I would gladly run OS X on any old black box given the ability. The fact that Apple’s hardware is nice and shiny is simply a bonus.


The Cult of Mac

Apple Mac Pro

Apple Mac Pro

What’s going on then? Why have I suddenly turned into a Mac weirdo recently? How do I justify this after spending so many years slagging off Macs and their users?

It’s probably exactly what you think; a combination of being utterly tired and pissed off with Windows (with XP now being over 5 years old and not due to be replaced for another 9 months at the very least) and much improved offerings from Apple over recent years. I don’t think that one of these things on its own would have been enough to convince me, and I expect Apple probably knew that too.

Yes, there’s Linux, and that’s good for many things, but Ubuntu (which is the closest thing I’ve seen to a useable Linux desktop) simply didn’t make me happy enough for me to be able to commit to it, and I never felt 100% at home with it (a reminder that I ran it on my old laptop for a number of months) and despite its advances it still required a large amount of tweaking to get it working with all my laptop’s hardware. This isn’t the case with my Mac. It really does “just work”.
Problems I had with Macs previously included:

  • Expensive hardware with poor performance: You used to typically pay around twice the amount you would have for a modern PC, with a specification around half that of said PC. Even when taking into account the assertion that Macs needed less resources to perform the same functions, it still didn’t add up and I saw little reason to spend so much on so little.
  • Rubbish operating system: Mac OS 9, in my admittedly limited experience, was a proprietary, buggy piece of shit and it was long overdue to be replaced (rather than just another release). It did things in its own way that made sense only to itself and to “native” Mac users, but that were completely baffling and counter-intuitive to anyone else. This put up a huge barrier to use and wider adoption.
  • Requirement for commitment to migration: While Mac OS has always enjoyed reasonable software support, it was still relatively limited when compared to Windows, for better or for worse (meaning that a huge range of software availability for a platform isn’t always necessarily a good thing).

Since then, Apple appears to have sat up, listened, and implemented a successful strategy for getting people to defect, including (but not limited to):

  • Cheaper hardware: I expect that this has largely been brought about by the introduction of Intel CPUs into all Macs over the past 18 months or so, but Apple made efforts previously to introduce more low-end models to entice people who simply couldn’t justify large expenditure on someone that, for them, was untried and untested. Things like the Mac Mini bridged this gap, allowing people to dip their toes in the water with relatively low risk. I am one of those people, and as a result here I am typing this on a brand new MacBook, a very capable laptop computer that, at £632 including NY state sales tax, cheaper than the vast majority of Windows-based laptops from other manufacturers. £600 will buy you a Windows laptop, but it won’t be a very good one.
  • Much improved operating system: The BSD based Mac OS X was a gigantic leap forward for Apple. It immediately attracted people from a UNIX background at a time when UNIX desktops left a lot to be desired. Its UNIX roots also obviously made Mac OS X extremely stable compared to Windows and Mac OS 9. While it still requires a little bit of getting used to by non-native Mac users, it can be picked up very quickly; certainly this was true for me.
  • Introduction of Intel CPUs: This has brought all sorts of advantages, from cheaper components (leading to cheaper products), through generally faster machines, through to the ability to actually run Microsoft Windows on a Mac alongside Mac OS X. Apple are quite correct in stating that many people will now have no excuse not to switch to a Mac. Mac OS X enjoys splendid software support, but even if that doesn’t prove to be enough and you’ve got some obscure Windows software package that doesn’t have an equivalent, you can still run it.

Other things that I really like about Mac OS versus Windows in particular:

  • Fairer licensing: Microsoft want money for each and every installation of Windows without exception, no matter who uses it, what it’s used for, or how often it is used. At around £300 for each installation, this is unfair and expensive, and now they’ve got their blasted product activation system to ensure that they get their readies. You have to be a large company in order to enjoy any sort of significant discount. Mac OS is not only siginificantly cheaper at £89, but spend £40 on top of that and you get to install it on up to five computers in your household, legally. Microsoft would want over 10 times that amount for the same privilege (assuming Windows XP Pro).
  • I didn’t have to spend hours uninstalling legions of useless crap when I bought my computer. My last two laptops and my desktop PC at work all came laden down with so much rubbish that it took me hours to remove it. Only after I had done so did the computer start to perform as expected. They do this because they want to push the fact that you’ve not just bought a PC, you’ve bought a Vaio, or a Thinkpad, or a Portege or whatever, and so obviously they need to make Windows XP less generic by filling it up with all sorts of manufacturer-specific rubbish that wants to manage your photos and play your MP3s and present you with special trial software with preferential purchase options. All bullshit.

So yeah, I’m hooked. Chris and I have an iMac as our “home computer” and now I have a Mac laptop. At work I currently have a Windows PC that I do all my work on, and sitting on my desk next to it is a Mac Mini that I use to test stuff with Safari. Next year when my PC comes up for replacement, I’ll be getting a Mac Pro, and instead of having the Mac Mini just to test stuff in Safari, I’ll install Windows on it and use it just to test stuff in Internet Explorer.

The real irony there is that the Mac Mini cost £400 and is smaller than my external DVD writer. I doubt that the same money would buy a Windows box of the same specification and size. So even for the things I need that a Mac can’t run natively, I’ll still be using a Mac. I hereby take back everything bad I ever said about Apple Macs and I willingly pledge myself to the Cult of Mac.

And yes, I’ll fix this site so it doesn’t look wonky in Safari, Howie, I promise :)


Explorer Destroyer

Slashdot | Explorer Destroyer – this is an extraordinarily bad idea and will most likely lead to another inter-browser jihad similar to that fought between Netscape and Internet Explorer in the late 90s, and trust me, nobody wants to go through that shit again. The trouble is, the pro-Firefox and pro-Opera and pro-not-IE zealots fail time and time again to understand the practicalities of developing sites and applications for modern web browsers.

The central issue is “web standards”. The W3C sets and maintains web standards which govern the specification and use of the various markup languages and how browsers should interpret said languages. This is all well and good, but only in theory. And it’s a good theory, make no mistake, but unfortunately we have a little thing called “real world” to contend with.

The trouble is that browsers are not standards compliant, which means that website coders by extension will waste their time by coding up a 100% standards compliant website, because the likelihood is that it won’t work, at least not fully, in any browser. Militant (read: non-commercially minded) developers stick to their guns on this, proclaiming that their site is 100% compliant, and to hell with the browsers, it isn’t their problem. Again, they do not live in the real world.

Some browsers are more standards compliant than others. Firefox and other Mozilla based browsers are more standards compliant than Internet Explorer. Safari and other KHTML browsers are more standards compliant than Firefox et al, Opera is more standards compliant than Safari et al, and so on and so forth. But none are 100% compliant. So, when coding up your website, you have to make allowances for this, which often means compromising design and/or functionality in some way. You either do this by changing your overall design, or you make browser-specific hacks. The former is the preferred method, but sometimes you’ve no choice but to do the latter, dirty as it may be.

Then there’s another issue in that some of the official web standards aren’t actually that sensible, with some bordering on pretty awful. Internet Explorer’s interpretation of the W3C standards is very flexible in some areas, and while this is technically not correct and it’s wrong of Microsoft to insist on their on take on the standards (another relic from the Netscape/IE war, anyone remember “Netscape tags”?), some of the modifications they have made are actually pretty reasonable, and really should be in the offical standards.

For example, the IE “box model” (how the browser calculates the dimensions of rectangular areas) in particular makes far more sense than the flawed and illogical W3C version, standard or not. The web development community recognises this particular issue, albeit reluctantly, so Microsoft aren’t all bad, even if their unilateral execution of the modification seems abhorrant to some.

I also tire of the shortsightedness of users of alternative browsers. On asking them why they prefer Firefox or whatever over Internet Explorer, their answers are generally one or more of:

  • $my_browser is more secure!
  • $my_browser has tabbed browsing!
  • $my_browser supports transparent PNGs!
  • $my_browser isn’t Microsoft! F/OSS! (free open source software)

The first one in that list is understandable, IE does have some problems with its security. But that’s nothing to do with how it renders web pages, and that’s the crux of the “standards” arguments. The same applies to the second item. Tabbed browsing is an application feature offered by the browser, and again, nothing to do with the page rendering. It is NOT REQUIRED by the W3C standard.

The third item is a cosmetic extravagence that frankly nobody needs and everybody has managed perfectly well without since the inception of the web. Granted, it would be a nice thing to have, but let’s face it, the web isn’t going to wither and die without it. Then on hearing the fourth item I stop speaking to the person because it’s then clear to me that it’s not about browsers and standards, they just want to bash Microsoft. Yawn. Move on.

IE isn’t perfect, not by any means. It’s old and it’s unsecure and its liberal take on published web standards can be infuriating. But it is a good, solid and above all popular browser, which 90% of the world uses. So while that’s still the case, developers working to a budget and who have to deliver return on investment will more often than not develop a site for IE, and then see what they can do to get it to work in other browsers, and even then they’ll probably stop at Firefox, the second most popular browser. Beyond that it’s just not commercially viable to spend time satisfying the various levels of standards compliance demanded by every subsequent minority browser. Sorry, but we don’t live in web standards utopia yet, we live in the real world, and we’ve all got to try to earn our keep in it.

This is a quite insightful comment regarding the perception and reality of standards:

I think you’re mistaking a standard for a formal specification.

I agree with you that it would be great if the whole browser world followed W3C recommendations, given their popularity outside the IE world, and the fact that they are formally specified. However, the word “standard” implies a widespread acceptance, and the only player in that game today is defined by “what IE 6 does”. Calling most specifications about the web from the W3C “standards” is, unfortunately, rather misleading; you cannot have less than 1/5 of the market share and claim to be any sort of standard, and AFAICS the W3C themselves rarely use that term.

You don’t like it. I don’t like it. But it is the way things are, and for the foreseeable future it’s the way things will be […] .

Returning to the subject of the referenced article, Firefox isn’t the holy grail of web browsers, so promoting it in such an invasive way is, in my opinion, no better than site that won’t let you in unless your’re using IE. Firefox lacks features just as Internet Explorer does, and it certainly does not have halos for standards compliance or security. Want a list? Be my guest.