Opinion: What's wrong with Mac OS X?

In short, not much -- although it falls short for business use

Paul Venezia bamboozled me into buying a MacBook Pro back in January, and I've been using it semi-daily ever since. And yeah, overall, I've been pretty happy. Of course, the only reason I was willing to buy one at all was because Parallels made it so easy to run Windows. But while my initial usage ratio was 85% Parallels, 15% OS X, over the past six months, that's changed dramatically to 45% Parallels, 55% OS X. Yup, the Orchard does slowly assimilate you.

But not everyone that uses a Mac is suddenly streaming sunshine. Scour the Web looking for unhappy Mac users and you'll find that they're just as vocal as those who hate Windows (like this guy off Google Video).

Does Mac OS X suck? After six months of playing with the platform, I have a viable opinion. I'm looking at the Mac from the perspective of a Windows-centric network manager and grading basic categories on a pass/fail basis.

Windows networking

Nobody complains about this because it works. OS X has an excellent networking client, both wired and wireless -- due in large part to FreeBSD rather than anything coming out of Cupertino. Seriously, I think it's noticeably better than Vista for pure IP networking. Plugging Macs into enterprise-class server-based applications is often the trick, but I'm leaving that for the software section below.

Grade: Pass (with a smile)


Short one because Apple's made good use of its Unix roots. It's a pretty secure system. Yes, ever since OS X has become more popular, attacks and breaches on the platform have become more numerous. And, yes, those numbers are high enough that if I were managing a portfolio of MacBooks, I'd be installing antivirus on them; you won't get away with saving yourself the AV expense -- at least, not without violating best-practice auditing.

That said, once the personal firewall is up and the AV installed, I'd fully expect to see far, far fewer security-related problems from my Mac clients than my Windows clients. Simple fact, there it is.

Grade: Pass (with a smile)


Apple users, including Sasquatch Venezia, make a big point out of how OS X and its applications "simply work" and "never crash." Sorry, but that's crap. I have crashed both Mac apps and OS X. On the crash issue, the question isn't whether it can crash; the question is whether it crashes more often than Windows.

Pre-XP, no question Apple wins. XP Pro, post-SP1, I'd have to think a little, but I'd give it to Apple. Vista post-shrink-wrap ... that's tricky. Personal experience says they're about tied -- I'm talking about the operating systems now, not the apps.

I've crashed more Vista apps than Apple apps, no doubt. But post-shrink-wrap Vista has locked up on me a grand total of once in six months, while OS X has died on me twice. To me, that makes them both fairly reliable and solid OS platforms.

Given the number of Vista crash reports on the Web, however, I'd say that my experience probably isn't the norm. Until SP1 or SP2 for Vista smooths things out, Apple's probably less crash-prone overall. But by then, we'll be comparing Vista to Leopard (where the hell is that cat, anyway?), so who knows?

Grade: Pass

Software compatibility

This is easily OS X's -- and, to a larger extent, Apple's -- most glaring yet completely ignored problem. To this day, the Orchard treats third-party developers like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, which results in significantly fewer third-party software options for Apple users than Windows users.

How much less? If people really know, I can't find them. Apple did a study -- can't take that at face value. Microsoft did a study -- same deal. I can't find a third-party objective study, so we've got to go with day-to-day experience on this one. When it comes to mission-critical, vertical-type business software, Windows clients far outnumber Apple clients. If they didn't, Macs would be populating a much larger number of corporate desktops.

And before all the Apple jihaders start listing Apple-compatible equivalents that will do anything I might be able to name, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about walking into potential client businesses and finding an OS layer that's appropriate for their needs. They're going to name a series of software apps that they must have. They don't want to switch those to something else and retrain and convert and take time away from business. They simply want to keep running what they know on the latest OS platform. This is where Apple drops the ball time and time again.

What really steams my clams about this is that I ding Vista for app compatibility and Microsoft has been working to correct it for the past five years. But Apple has been making this mistake for the past two decades and refuses to do anything about it. Apps are lacking, Java compatibility is chronically behind, and most of Apple's dev efforts are aimed at a glorified MP3 player, for God's sakes. From a business-oriented network manager's perspective, that's just not attractive.

Still, Vista passed this on the basis of testing. If your apps work, go ahead; if they don't, look elsewhere. Same applies to the Mac.

Grade: Pass (grudgingly)


Similar to software, this is another business lesson that Apple simply isn't willing to learn. Business users like standardized and open hardware platforms. It leaves them free to hunt for bargains and to install third-party components without worrying about long-term hardware compatibility. Apple doesn't care. Want OS X? You're buying your hardware from Apple or you're pulling some VMware hacking stunt.

This used to be even more problematic when Apple was much more expensive than comparable PC platforms. Today, however, Macs are only somewhat more expensive. And they look cool. But even so, Apple doesn't do anything to attract business users. The company doesn't advertise business-buying programs, warranties or leasing offers. Apple might do them, but if you're the average harried business buyer, the company makes you hunt for them. That's a mistake.

From a purely technical standpoint, however, the hardware is OK, and if that sounds mediocre, it is. Apple machines look great, but from pure feature comparisons, I would have rated my MacBook Pro as middle of the road. I've seen notebooks from Gateway, for instance, that had more USB ports, a card reader, spare batteries, fingerprint encryption and better battery life all in the same form factor and for less bucks.

Using Apple hardware isn't sublime joy, either. Personal experience has the screen on my MacBook warping slightly (which wasn't a big deal) and the hard disk heaving a death rattle after four months (which was a big deal). Apple replaced the hard disk with no worries since it was still under warranty, but that's a pretty short time frame for serious hardware failure.

But similar to PC hardware users, for every story like mine there's one of a supremely happy Apple user. So as long as you're willing to pay slightly more for what amounts to a cool case and an Apple logo, Apple hardware will work, on average, just as well as anything else.

Grade: Pass

Business orientation

This is the one that's going to raise the most furor. When you look at both the Software and Hardware sections above and combine that with Apple's marketing, Apple seems to put consumers first, business second. A distant second. And for business buyers, that's an issue important enough to warrant a grade.

Sure, on a bits-and-bytes level, the computer will work fine in most business settings, especially smaller firms that aren't pushing the tech envelope on the server app side (though I'm still waiting for a tablet or even a docking station). But Apple does absolutely nothing to attract these customers; it just isn't the audience Apple's chasing. Just look at the company's advertising: Guys who wear suits are stuffy and stupid. Apple users have beard stubble and wear yesterday's underwear, and fathers don't want them dating their daughters. It's a SoHo, I'm-cooler-than-you coffee house image, and Apple seems to like it that way.

Yeah, I'm aware they have a server, but it seems that they're as willing to talk about it as Michael Vick is to talk to the ASPCA. I've been covering SMBs for six years now and I've gotten an Apple Server press release a grand total of ... never. Only two of my field clients have ever been aware that Apple even had a server, and neither had any idea what it did. Which is weird because by all accounts, it's an excellent platform; fast, manageable and smart about hardware resources. But just like the Novell of a few years ago, Apple doesn't mention the box to anyone who isn't already a rabid Apple fan. And the company mentions its enterprise marketing to practically no one.

Is that a big deal? For the academic and techie crowd, no. They know what they want, and they know Apple's bringing it. For the SMB or enterprise CEO/CFO putting in a six- or seven-figure purchase order, you'd better believe it's a big deal. For one thing, who wants to buy a product from someone who looks down on you? For another, they're not getting the warm and fuzzy we'll-support-you-no-matter-what vibes from Cupertino. It doesn't matter how solid the OS might be; if business buyers don't feel comfortable with the deal, they're not going drop the bucks.

Grade: Fail

Overall, does OS X suck? Hell, no. In some ways it's superior to Vista, and that's probably only going to increase when the elusive Leopard finally rears its furry head. Yeah, Apple failed a category where Vista didn't, but that's a fuzzy business/marketing category, not something tangibly technical. But for all its fuzziness, business marketing is still important to the buyers in that market and the intended readers of this column. And something has to explain why Apple simply isn't doing as well in the business market as Windows -- and this, three to five years since it began its serious popularity push.

On a purely technical level, OS X rocks. Apple did a fantastic job of taking a solid Unix kernel and putting a slick and pretty face on it. I wish they'd open it up to more third-party development so I'd have more apps and more buying choices, but that's like wishing Microsoft would make an OS platform that really ran in Version 1 without a service pack. It's just not their way.

From the aspect of this column, I can't give Apple a single letter grade. I've got to give it one from a technical, Apple-only perspective and another from a business-buying standpoint. From the purely technical side, I'd give it a B+, which may rise to an A- the longer I keep using it.

From a business buyer's perspective, however, I've got to give it a C-. It passes, but with limited third-party software support and a company that seems to care so little for me as a customer, I simply wouldn't feel comfortable making those kinds of purchases.

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This story, "Opinion: What's wrong with Mac OS X?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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