Computer Advice Needed

Paleo Retiree writes:

After 17 years of being a contented user of their gadgets, I’ve recently found myself falling out of love with Apple.

One factor: I don’t like the direction the company is steering its customers in. In fact, nearly everything Apple has introduced into OSX since 2009’s Snow Leopard (best Mac OS ever, IMHO) has turned me off. It all seems dictatorial, locked-in and controlling even by Apple’s standards.

Some others: Their cloud strategy (iCloud) strikes me as wrong-headed … Their determination to make desktop/laptop computing ever more like using a smartphone horrifies me … Even the company’s recent product announcements have been dull; they show zero excitement and less than no vision. The current Apple crew seem to be doing nothing more than filling in the big picture that Steve Jobs sketched out for them.

The iPad may have been the moment that broke my spirit. I have an iPad2 but I don’t use it very often. It’s a slick machine in many ways, no question about that. And iOS (the operating system of the iPad and iPhone) is nothing if not perky, appealing and clever. But I find iOS (and the ever-more-iOS-like OSX) frustrating. It may be super-convenient but it defeats me. I can’t express the dismay I felt when I realized that an iPad user has no access to the device’s filing system, let alone the horror that overcame me on learning that there’s no way to drag and drop a file from the iPad to the laptop, or vice versa. Synching with iTunes? You gotta be kidding. And there’s no way to get to your document except through the app you created it in? What do these people take me for? According to a recent comments-thread over at Macworld, the fact that I’m comfortable using my laptop’s filing system qualifies me as a “power user.” And Apple isn’t focused on “power users” any longer, I’m told.

I find that doing anything productive on the iPad that’s more ambitious than writing an email is such a chore — “Now, how do I get from here to there?” I’m always asking myself — that I’ve resigned myself to using my device as nothing more than a consumption machine. It’s good for watching movies and for reading books. It doesn’t get hot. And, oh, OK: it ain’t bad for minor websurfing and emailing. But for me, my life at a computer wants to consist of juggling a multitude of pictures, words, browser windows, and apps. This is a style of computing that, on the laptop, I do with great ease — without thinking about it at all, in fact. On the iPad I find computing as I want to compute impossible.

It’s all left me thinking: Is it just me, or is Apple becoming the new Evil Empire? With their lawsuits, their bossiness, their size and success, and their determination to make everything EASY, Apple has begun to feel to me like Microsoft did circa 1990.

As I’ve become more disenchanted with Apple I’ve found myself unhooking my material from its Apple-centricity. I’ve been freeing my snapshots from my iPhoto and Aperture databases, for instance, creating my own folder system for pictures. (Troublemaker Blowhard Esq. introduced me to Lyn, a fast and lightweight image viewer that I like using a lot better than using iPhoto and/or Aperture.) I’ve also been going through my stash of writing and turning all those files into .txt files — I want to be able to open them on any machine, not just on an Apple device. I’ve even begun thinking that the time may have come to start liberating my music tracks from the ugly maw of iTunes …

In fact, I’ve found myself thinking about abandoning Apple entirely. Certainly not to move in the direction of Windows. God forbid: For many years I used Windows computers at the office, and I ain’t returning to that nightmare. Instead, I’ve found myself thinking about taking my computing in two different directions.

On the one hand, part of me craves simplicity and ease above all things. Wasn’t that why I loved Apple in the first place? I ain’t no techie, I’m a content guy, and the less I need to concern myself with the guts of a computer, and the more I’m free to have the kind of fun I want to have with the machine, the better.

Thinking like this has been leading me in the direction of Google. I used to find Google and its products (other than basic Search) too geeky. Gmail didn’t come naturally to me, for instance. And Google’s products often seemed to be the kinds of things that would appeal ‘way more to bright geeks than to everyday people. Who could even understand what Google Wave was, let alone how a normal person might use it? It’s often been hard for my non-geek brain to enter into the Google mindset.

But recently I’ve liked a lot of what Google’s been up to. I’ve put an archive of articles, reviews and interviews online using Google Sites — easy and free. Google+ may be short of members but it’s well-designed and well-engineered — easier to manage than Facebook, and much more respectful of one’s reasonable privacy concerns. (The Google+ team seems to have taken careful note of what people hate about FB.) If my friends moved en masse over to Google+, I’d be thrilled to leave Facebook behind forever. The Google-sponsored Nexus 7  strikes me as a tastier piece of tablet goodness than the iPad: more down to earth, smaller, and cheaper.

Most important: I like Google’s approach to the cloud. The main idea here is very simple, and nothing “automagic” in the slick-when-it-works Apple way. Instead, you simply use Google’s servers as your hard drive, and you get to the material (songs, writing, pictures, etc) that you’ve put there via any gadget you happen to be using. So long as you can get online, the app or gadget you use is up to you. You aren’t locked into the app you created your document in.

The filing system of Google Drive is like the filing system of your computer — nice. I like using Google Music better than using Apple’s iTunes — also nice. I’m perfectly happy writing and editing in Google Docs — supernice. Picasa (Google’s version of Flickr) is currently a mess — oh well. I’m still waiting to find a good cheap online photo organizer/editor.

But, generally speaking, Google offers a really nice collection of services. I wouldn’t mind paying $100 a year to use their tools and a chunk of their servers. In fact, given the amount of time and money I’m currently devoting to updates, backups, external hard drives and other maintenance chores tending my Apple machines, $100 a year seems like a bargain.

Putting everything online has another benefit: you’re freed from your hardware. Where Apple’s approach locks you into their devices, with Google, however you can get online (and into your Google account) is fine.

That approach makes Google’s Chromebook an interesting device. The Chromebook is a small, inexpensive laptop designed entirely for use on the cloud. There’s no hard drive. There are no in-the-computer apps. All the Chromebook does is go online. (The machine’s software is basically a Chrome browser on top of a slimmed-down version of Linux.) You want to write? You go online and do your writing there. You want to have fun with your photos? You do that online too. The machine runs cool. It boots up and shuts down quickly. It updates itself every time you turn it on — there’s no need the concern yourself with virus protection, backups or OS updates. It basically requires no maintenance at all, and it’s cheap and light. If it breaks down, so what? Your material’s safe with Google, not buried on a misbehaving hard drive.

Two main disadvantages to embracing the cloud / Chromebook life: I like shooting and messing-around with vidclips. Storing, organizing and editing vidclips is a tedious enough process on a self-contained laptop. Online it’s a joke. The other disadvantage is: How much do you trust Google? You’re putting your material on their hard drives, after all. Will they treat it responsibly? Plus: Google has become so central to everyone’s computing that it seems unthinkable that Google might not be around forever. But what if Google should somehow go under (bombs? financial disasters? terrorism?)? What would become of your photos, your writing, your music?

The other option I find myself thinking about is a consequence of watching “Revolution OS,” a (not-terrible / not-great) 2002 doc about the open-source software movement. The movie covers the early GNU project as well as the more recent Linux, and its main value is in the way it makes the history of these initiatives fairly clear, and in introducing the viewer to a lot of people who have been involved in them. It’s fascinating to meet such legendary software people as Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds, and to get a bit a feeling for the geek mind and the geek life. From an entertainment point of view, the doc faces one major, if unavoidable, challenge: It’s hard to imagine a less open-to-the-camera bunch of people than computer geeks. Still, even witnessing that fact is pretty interesting.

If you aren’t familiar with the open-source software movement: it’s a reaction by idealistic programmers and engineers to the commercial dominance (mainly by Microsoft and Apple) of computing. The operating system of your computer is its brains — and why let its terms be dictated by Gates and / or Jobs? Collaborating voluntarily, software people around the world have created an entire, mainly-noncommercial alternative to the Windows / Apple world. Extracool benefit: the Linux OS is supposed to be supersolid.

The movie really revved me up. I came away from it thinking: “Right, open-source! That’s the way to go!” Partly for the hippie-survivalist, everything-oughta-be-open-and-free side of it, just because I’m a little like that myself. But partly also for control. With Linux, you’re really in charge. Yes, it’s up to you to tend the machine; you gotta tend to backups, updates, driver problems, etc. But the big evil commercial behemoths don’t get to dictate terms.  It’s you who define the terms of your computing life, not Apple or Microsoft or Facebook — or Google. With Linux, you run your own show.

Divided soul that I am … On the one hand, I want to skip the getting-my-hands-dirty side of computing entirely, dump my material online, and use the ultimate low-maintenance machine to access and have fun with it. Let the pros take care of what’s under the hood. Me, I’m a content person. On the other hand, I want to take total charge of my computing life and tell the larger world to screw off. Yes, with Linux hands will need to get dirty — but if you do so with commitment and brains, your computing life will finally be yours and yours alone.

It’s nothing if not a stark contrast … Which way to go? … Any opinions would be appreciated.

At the moment my own brain is telling me to opt for complete control and become a Linux guy. But should I really trust my brain? My brain has misled me in the past, god knows. For instance: intellectually it once seemed to me that by all rights I should have a passion for the Japanese board game Go. I’ve got a thing for Asian aesthetics and philosophy … I like giving my brain a workout … I should be a Go nut! In reality, though, even though I’ve given Go numerous tries, I’ve never taken to the game. My intellect told me that I should love it. Reality showed me that I don’t.

Will Linux prove to be something similar — an idea I dig in principle but whose reality I don’t care for so much? And will giving myself over to Linux turn out finally to be more demanding than using a Mac? I could spend months getting up to speed with Linux, moving my material from the ol’ MacBook to a new Linux system … and wind up less happy (and more burdened with computing annoyances) than I am now.

Still: I’ve been thinking about giving Linux a try just to see how it goes. And here’s another place where I could use your advice.

Do you think that someone like me — a competent consumer-type user of computers, but one who has never, ever done anything with the command line, and whose programming skills are limited to setting up a basic HTML page — realistically manage (and enjoy) a Linux-based computing life? I don’t mind doing some learning, but I really, really don’t want the tending-the-computer side of computing to overwhelm what I want to do with the computer: have fun with photos, write, surf, blog, mess with vidclips, listen to music, etc.

And, of course, cheap would be nice. I’m a retiree on a tight budget … There’s the chance that I might spend a few months monkeying with Linux only to lose interest …

So here’s what I’m considering: buying a cheapo Windows netbook (this one, maybe) and giving myself the chance to explore Linux on it. I figure that even if I do nothing more than mess around, I’ll have learned something, I’ll have had a cool and worthwhile experience, and — even if the netbook finally does nothing but gather dust — I won’t be out too many bucks.

Your opinion please: Does this sound like a sensible way for someone like me to proceed? What have your own Linux adventures, if any, been like? Any good instruction-book-for-newbies recommendations?

Having said all this, I feel duty-bound to acknowledge that The Wife is completely crazy about the new MacBook Air I just bought her. And I gotta admit: That thing really is one fast, handy and slick little machine.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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12 Responses to Computer Advice Needed

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    “is Apple becoming the new Evil Empire?”

    Steve Jobs died at just the right moment. Either Apple his strategy would have started to finally fail, or it would have succeeded, and he would have turned into Big Brother from the “1984” Super Bowl commercial Ridley Scott made for him to introduce the Mactinosh 28 years ago.


  2. Steve Sailer says:

    I’ve had a Macbook Air for 8 months and it’s been satisfactory. The 13″ screen is too small for my presbytopic eyes, but otherwise it pretty much just works.


  3. epiminondas says:

    The wifey has every reason to love the Macbook Air. It’s the best in its class. It’s light, quiet and pretty much does everything a computer should do. In fact, the entire line of Mac laptops are heading in that direction now. In another five years, they will all have the look and feel of the Macbook Air…just more powerful.

    Experiment. Don’t be afraid to lose a little money on products you don’t like. I’ve sold a lot of equipment that did not work out for me over the years. The trick is to quickly make the determination that something is not for you so that you get more of your money back out of the thing when you dump it. But experimenting is the only way to discover your limits or what suits you. You can read all the geek shit you want, but there is nothing like putting your hands on a piece of equipment and trying to wrap your brain around it. If it won’t fit your brain, get on a different train.


    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      I’ll second epiminondas’s recommendation to experiment. About 5 years ago I bought an old Dell CPU for $100 and set up a headless LAMP server running Ubuntu Edgy Eft. Used it to host a few web pages and files, and just generally to play around with. Fun to learn, but after a few months the novelty wore off and that was it for me. Oh, I also had a Linux partition on my regular desktop that I gradually used less and less, too.

      Ubuntu was about as user-friendly as it got but it was still pretty demanding. But there are lots of tutorials on-line and the community is supportive when it comes to newbies. Linux is part of the whole MAKE/hacker ethos, though, so getting your hands dirty is part of the appeal.

      Bottom line: Your approach sounds good. I say go for it.


  4. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    You’ve put your finger on why I’ve avoided the iPad. I ask myself, What the hell would I do with it? Web surf at the airport?

    I have yet to experience any Mac OS newer than Leopard. I need to buy a new desktop, though. Was going to get one loaded with Lion, but you’re givin’ me second thoughts.


    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      I’ve avoided Lion too b/c of his reservations. I’m still running Snow Leopard.

      The DVD drive crapped out on my cheap Windows laptop and I’ve been thinking about a netbook too. I’d love to get a Macbook Air but they’re just too damned expensive.


  5. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    I had the same reaction to the iPad. I bought it to be a Kindle killer and for surfing. Not good for either one. And the touch screen is not the panacea replacement for the mouse I thought it would be. I’m back on a laptop now, I gave it to my daughter. But my parents like theirs, and it must be said it’s the first form factor that can be comfortably used while sitting on the can.

    Experimenting is cool but I don’t think you’ll find Linux has the polished user experience you’re used to. If Apple is a Jag, Microsoft a Chevy, Linux is a home made dune buggy. Guy’s I’ve known who’ve mastered it are like gods in their domains, but I don’t think it’s for the non-techy.


  6. Jack Hertz says:

    You will never be happy with Linux or a Chromebook. Linux is complicated and distributions can implode on a major upgrade. Even then, the applications are sub-par IMO. If you don’t like the iPad, you will hate a Chromebook. Its just a glorified Android OS in a laptop format.

    As for cloud and services thing, I think the real push is to turn computing into a service itself. Surely these companies are dying to charge for access, software and features just like cable TV and phone is now. The upside is no stuff to upgrade with unlimited computing power. Already, you can lease cloud servers on Amazon Web Services and other hosts with as many CPUs as you like. The copyright control is fair and its respectable to protect property. However, what I fear most is the reestablishment of closed distribution channels. Every writer, musician and filmmaker who was around before the the Net knows, we were locked out.

    JMO, but get Windows 7 on a Dell laptop with an i7 CPU. Super fast machine by a company that tunes all their gear and supports it very well. I have had 5-6 machines and every one has been great. Windows has improved greatly, and has funky as it can be at times. But that’s what you get with a less tightly controlled system.


  7. Shelley says:

    I’m not surprised that you are disappointed in the ipad, it is a delivery device that you are using as a creation device.

    I’m sticking to my little group of mac mini’s they chug along happily, are small enough that I can pull one off to take with me when I go to work somewhere else taking my software with me as well as the work that needs to be presented. I back up in two ways: time machine keeps track of the every day and a separate hard drive is archived for photos/financial/anything important.

    I don’t use the cloud to store anything, it is neither safe, not private. Why don’t you use Filemaker? such an easy way to organize images and content. I started using it for more than words one day when Adobe Bridge and I were having a disagreement about where a file was. Yes you have to add a few extra clicks, but then all of your images are searchable in so many intuitive ways, helpful for us old folks who want to find that photo of the dog on the beach last Labor Day. iPhoto? feh. perhaps your problem is that you are using amateur tools to do a professional’s job.

    I have my nook, and it does what it should, it carries my books and lets me send short emails and get quick info from the web. Remember that a Chromebook is an empty box, a keyboard for the cloud. Those insightful thoughts you get when looking out your cabin window at the sunset? Better have a post-it handy, not a cloud in sight. My nook at least holds my books in its little dark heart.

    Adobe, now that is the work of the devil.


  8. BulldogBear says:

    The iPad isn’t a creation device?

    I’ve used my iPad to create several Keynote presentations, and it was easier and faster to do on the iPad than on a desktop.

    When people say the iPad (or iPhone for that matter) is a consumption/delivery device and not a creation device, what they really mean is that it’s not a device THEY USE to create.

    I’ve been a Mac user (and a Windows user) for eons. I really don’t see much difference in the OS through most of the big cat updates. File structure is still there, app-switching hasn’t changed, and iPhoto has always been lackluster for anyone with more than 100 photos. You don’t have to use any of the iOS-like features if you don’t want to.

    Regarding Apple becoming the next Evil Empire – is it because Apple has changed, or is it because now they’re the biggest fish in the pond? Their vision and standards haven’t changed much – They didn’t compromise when they released the original iPod that everyone said would fail – it was Mac only. When it was launched on Windows in 2003, you had to use iTunes. Through the 80s and 90s the Mac OS had it’s own font type and wouldn’t play at all with Windows. In the 90s, near their deathbed, they mistakenly licensed their OS to third parties and almost disappeared forever.

    If you think Apple is “bossy” now, how would you’ve described them under Steve Jobs? He broke the music industry’s stranglehold on distribution, made similar steps into the Hollywood studios, and dictated the terms to cellphone carriers instead of the other way around. Firewire? No floppy drive? The iPod/iPad/iPhone doc connector? No optical drive? No removable batteries in my phone? Magnets in a computer? Switching from PowerPC to Intel? Apple hasn’t become bossy – they’ve been that way since they built their first Macintosh.

    sidenote: For dragging/dropping files between the iPad and a laptop, try a free Dropbox account.


  9. Maule Driver says:

    I find myself in a similar position but having come to it from different directions. I’m a Windows/PC guy who is slowly discovering the joys of Apple while always understanding its limits. For the generation that experienced ‘open’ systems or perhaps more precisely, open operating systems, Apple’s world will always seem over controlled, over managed and ultimately limited. For the generation growing up on Apple, the iPad the iPhone are just appliances and the iCloud is a utility which will always be there. Power users ‘hack’ and ‘jail break’ their devices to get at the innards and enable disallowed activities. Geeky users go elsewhere where open systems are welcome and experimentation isn’t illegal. And normal users (content and application people) go where the best suite of apps and utilities is.

    What should a Paleo Retiree do? Exactly what you are doing. Take inventory of what you want and need, identify the best of breed devices and apps, and chase them down. Repeat.

    But avoid dead ends. Don’t confuse your desire for control with the need for an open operating system experience. Yes, if you grew up on Windows or MS/DOS or even DOS/VSE (a 70s vintage IBM mainframe operating system), you are used to copying a file here and moving a file there but do you really want to know all the files’ attributes and location in the directory structure? You are a content guy not a systems guy. You’ve chosen iOS and OSX by virtue of the appliances you selected. You’ll choose Linux in the same way. That is, not by deciding to become Linux fluent but rather by selecting Linux appliances like a Chromebook or an Android tablet. Linux should be as transparent and useless as iOS is to a content guy. But very nice application environments can be built on the various Linux platforms, like Chromebook.

    And like everyone says, experiment. I’m between Windows, which I love/hate, an Android phone, and an iPad. We have in iPhone in the family and just added a Mac Air or Air Mac or whatever the hell it is to the stable but right now it’s being ignored. I too see myself going to a Google/Linux-centric environment because it fits my eye but ultimately I’m going where the functions and applications are.


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