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Why won't IT staff recommend Macs or Linux?

© October 2006 Anthony Lawrence

You'll sometimes hear this sentiment:

"You won't find IT/MIS staff recommending Macs or Linux because they know that they would be recommending themselves out of a job."

No, I don't think so. Oh, sure, there is a kernel of truth there: Windows networks do generally require more support staff than Unix or Linux systems, but I don't think your typical Windows centric IT person knows that. You need to be someone who has seen Unix networks switched to Windows and have watched the inexorable inflation of support personnel to understand that.

In fact, a "Windows-only" IT person contemplating an influx of Mac or Linux systems almost certainly sees them as a support headache at best and a nightmare at worst: unfamiliar problems will plague the network and wreak havoc in IT.

Those attitudes are changing, of course. Both Linux and Macs are insinuating themselves into businesses more and more. Some Macs were always there, but it's not just the Art department anymore and while Linux seldom reaches the desktop, Linux servers are quite strong. The IT department may not have "recommended", but they are accepting these invasions - perhaps grudgingly at times, but still accepting.

Let's say something nice about Microsoft: Microsoft's predatory business practices of bullying, baiting, and all that aside, Microsoft does pays close attention to what people want. They may do a horrible, botched job of providing it initially, and at the next revision, and so on, but eventually they do provide decent products (usually assisted by driving out the competition with unfair pricing etc. but that's another story).

With apologies for gross over simplification, Unix and Linux have paid little attention to users and tend toward satisfying programmers, and Apple has historically told us what it thinks we SHOULD want rather than what we DO want. Remember the idiotic Apple II's with no arrow keys? Spreadsheets weren't a lot of fun on that platform, but Apple Knew Better.

Apple bigots should pause before sending me death threats: I *like* Apple. I'm writing this on an iMac. I like Macs, and ever since Mac has embraced Unix I have not used anything else as my desktop machine.

More generically, I'm a long time Unix fan and have 30 years or so of IT experience in addition to Unix - Dos, Windows, Macs, Novell and a few other odd things here and there. I have seen businesses switch to Windows from Unix. It is true that Windows networks demand more IT resources, but IT people aren't generally afraid of losing work if they brought in non-Windows platforms - there's just too much to be done to worry about that. What they do worry about is interoperability (which is not helped by our friends at Microsoft sometimes bending over backwards to deliberately break interoperability and generally keeping their interfaces secret). But Linux has been able to make inroads on the server side in spite of that.

Not on the desktop, though. Unix and Linux have historically been weak there - the developers just haven't give the user interface enough attention. It has gotten better recently with Linux, but it's still a bit rough.

That's certainly not something anyone ever said about Apple! Whatever faults Apple has had, ignoring the user interface certainly hasn't been one of them. They may have had their foolish moments (Apple II's etc) but UI is their definite strength.

At one time I thought that Macs might resurge strongly on the desktop. Instead, it's tablets and cloud computing that are driving Microsoft out. That's something IT departments wanted to resist also, for security as well as interoperability reasons. The demand is too strong, though, and BYOD (bring Your own Device) is a trend that will keep increasing.

The next decade is going to be interesting!

As to home users:

You might think I recommend Macs all the time, but I don't. People often ask my advice about buying a computer for themselves, for a daughter going off to college, for their business. Most of the time, after thinking about who they are and what they need, I end up steering them to a Windows machine. I'm never really happy about that, but at this point I just can't see any way around it.

There are analogies in the world of cars. Maybe a Mac is the computing equivalent of one of those electric hybrids that my sister wants to buy. Or maybe it's a BMW with a diesel engine: very nice car, but the inconvenience of diesel can be a problem for some people. Inconvenience is probably just about the right word: just like the BMW, there may be lots of good things you wouldn't get with the Ford Taurus/Windows PC, but there are also little things like using diesel or that Windows only applications won't run (yes, you could run them under Virtual PC - we'll get to that).

For many of the people I talk to, some Windows application is the reason they own a computer. There may be a Mac equivalent, in fact it's likely that there is. But sometimes that's like offering someone milk instead of cream for their coffee. It's not the same. Some people adapt easily, some people don't. Don't try offering my wife anything but Coffeemate or cream, but I'll take it anyway you have it, including straight black. Some people are just not going to like having things be different, or are going to really need some Windows-only program.

Of course there would be good things too. Just like the Beamer, the Mac has charms not found in Windows or a Taurus. Almost complete elimination of virus and worm concerns, for one. Some Mac programs are actually much better than their PC equivalents, too. The power of Unix sits underneath the pretty Mac interface, and that's a big, big plus in my mind.

If you are looking at a Mac, I do recommend that you load it up with lots more memory. Apple does themselves a disservice selling these with the base memory configurations they have: it's not enough, and will just cause swapping and unpleasant experiences for the new user. That's not what you want: keeping the sticker price down undoubtedly drives this, but it is short sighted and damaging to future sales. People are going to USE these machines; I run with far more open programs than I would with Windows and I think that's typical. Running programs need ram: feed the beast within.

But again, today I'm more apt to recommend a tablet than anything else.

Some of the comments below were transferred from a much older article on this same subject.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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Mon Oct 16 02:24:49 2006: 2522   Sledge

However, modern installs go pretty smooth and there are some distros that install in four or five clicks. My wife (not technical) was using the Linux box I set up as the only desktop for two weeks before I realized it. I found out when she called to apologize for breaking it. The PPP dialer was set to respawn and she had tried to logoff the machine without logging off the internet so it wouldn't shut down.
I had shown her once how to log in. X started automatically in her account. and there were icons on the desktop for everything she did. Just like any other GUI. I was proud of her.
Now there is a Windows box in play and a PDA and I have to make the hot sync work in order for it to succeed. No reflection on her, PDA's under MS are a pain.

Mon Oct 16 09:14:35 2006: 2523   Mike

I'm not a programmer or a techy, so this is a user's view (which may have its own interest). I've got all three OSes - Mac OS X on my desktop, and Windows and Linux dual-booted on my laptop - available to me (at least I have when I'm not on the move) but I find I most often use OS X. This may be partly because it's more comfortable to use a desktop - to sit at a keyboard low enough and still have a screen up high enough and so on, but mostly I think it is because OS X is so much further into the comfort zone in usability terms. OS X may be something of a mess under the hood - didn't Anandtech call it a hodge-podge? - but it presents a very usable interface to the user.

Now I'm not one of those ubiquitous Apple fanboys who'll praise the company come what may. I've actually no time at all for Apple for several reasons - and particularly because they refused to replace a defective logicboard whose serial number was actually listed on their site, as a result of which I now have an iBook that is no more use than a doorstop. (They said they'd changed their policy and now didn't replace.) Not a nice company; not a trustworthy company. And the current batch of hardware problems might well make one hesitate before recommending an Apple to anyone. And yet for all that I have to like OS X. It is probably the easiest to use of all - for example, out the box you've got capability for bluetooth syncing with phones. You haven't got that on XP, and I don't imagine it would be a picnic to set up: I dread to think of what it'd be like on Linux. It's also good to have applications in /Applications as bundles and their preferences in ~/Preferences as XML files. None of that nonsense with files from programs sprayed all over the machine in different places. No Registry, no dependency hell.

Even on the laptop I probably boot into Linux more rarely than into Windows. It's fine, but you're more likely to run into problems or things that don't function. And even just for very standard functions like emailing and web browsing I don't find it quite as good. Evolution is a very nice program, but it does seem to be prone to lock-ups and crashes. Even importing a VCard - a valid one not a malformed one - can lock it up ... and repeatedly on restart to the point where you have to find the address book in your home directory with the file manager and delete it, then re-import your contacts from backup. Could you imagine that with Apple's Address Book on OS X? Similarly with browsing: if a site needs flash, you'll be out of luck. I haven't got round to jury-rigging that on the install I'm using yet. I have in the past: it worked ... sort of ... on-and-off. Also, I'm more likely to boot into Windows, because I've got iTunes available to me then, and I'm used to that program from OS X. Familiarity with particular applications is always going to bring inertia with it. Sometimes it's nice to play with a new program and work it out, but often you just want to use a program for its intended purpose/s, and then the ones you know win out.

So for me Linux is OK. I'll use it for some things. For example, Open Office is nice, and I can't afford the cost of Microsoft Office on the OS X machine on the Windows install - and it's nice to know that you can save into an open format. But I find I don't use Linux a lot - less than I expected to when I installed it.

Mon Oct 16 21:59:15 2006: 2526   drag

I don't recommend Linux to non-technical users, not unless I am there to install it and set it up for them. However it's perfectly usable by average persons.

The main issues people run into when running linux on the desktop is:
- Propriatory drivers needed to play video games
- Favorite applications on Windows don't install in Linux
- Wireless is still hit or miss, but it's gotten much better.
- Multimedia capabilities is spotty. For instance wmv files are common and Linux can play them back, but only using slightly illegally using win32 codecs with compatability layers. The end result is that performance is slow, picture quality is poor, and compatability is low. Of course with more open stuff like mp3, or mpeg4 files there is no such problem.
- many websites are tailored IE-only and often have propriatory things not compatable with Linux. Such as 'shockwave'.
- A level of technical ability is assumed by most distribution makers
- Most distributions will ship updates that may break things requiring technical knowledge to do updates.
- UI is confusing to new users.

- Things like IE, MS Office, Photoshop, World of Warcraft, Halflife2 and other popular apps can be made to run in Linux, but requires extra work and technical skill to be done.

Advantages to Linux over OS X
- Makes a better server OS.
- Performance is better.
- Hardware compatability is better.
- Wider selection of applications. (although not in all cases.. For instance NLE for video editing)
- Much more inexpensive.
- Does not require purchasing a new computer when upgrading from Windows.
- Can be made to run on old hardware (for example: Damn Small Linux will run that old Win95 machine you have laying around)
- Can handle non-traditional installs (for example: Knoppix live cd or installing a OS on flash key to be used from computer to computer)
- No invasive licensing restricts (can't give OS X to your brother to just install on his machine like you can with linux.)

And stuff like that. Both things, of course, are better then Windows (IMO), except in roles were you need applications that are only going to be aviable on Windows.

Or if you want it simple:
The major advantage that OS X has over Linux is a fellow can run down to the local 'Apple Bar' and buy a new laptop and be able to use it with no fuss and no muss. For instance a freind's mom is a teacher. Previously I spent weekends trying to get Windows to work well for her and her family. No chance that they could figure out how to fix it or how to reinstall it along with their applications. But she runs down and buys a new ibook and is happily running it no problem.


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