jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Switcher Season 2021


Years ago Alex Payne wrote “Switching Season”, about how he thought about switching from Mac to Linux. I know how he feels. From time to time I get the idea in my head that I’d like to move away from all things Apple and diversify my investment in technology. This normally manifests itself when I’m in the market for a new computer (which I am), and often in the form of a Unix workstation on my desk. The past few days I’ve been eyeing the System 76 Thelio.

To be accurate, this is not a “Unix” workstation, since it ships running a weird version of Ubuntu Linux. I wouldn’t run Linux on it though, I’d run a minimal install of FreeBSD combined with the XMonad tiling window manager. Inside XMonad I’d have half the screen taken up by Firefox, and the other half be a terminal, most likely split with tmux. I could keep Vim handy for running Vimwiki and all my other text editing needs, play music in cmus, keep up to date with the news with newsboat, and handle email with mutt.

When I did need Linux or Windows for whatever reason, I’d keep a virtual machine image handy to spin up in bhyve.

It could be a quiet, extremely focused work environment. Zero alerts, no notifications, no extraneous applications to pull me away from what I’m doing.

But… I’d also be closing the door on some future possibilities. I’ve been working on a new Mac app for bookmarking lately, and it’s actually very close to being ready for the App Store. A few things left undone yet, and it’s a little buggy in places, but overall it’s getting close. With my focused Unix workstation I’d be saying to myself “this part of your life is over.” And, that’s hard to say because the Mac and I go way back.

Apple was on the rebound when I bought my first Mac in 2003 or so, but I’d been eyeing them for years from overseas. Very similar to how I’ve been eyeing the System76 box, come to think of it. They were on the rebound, but they still weren’t anything close to what they are now. They were still the scrappy underdog, not literally the world’s most valuable company. The community around the Mac was a lot of fun, we kept getting blown away by the amazing technology that came out of Cupertino.

Following Apple as a hobby has been a spark of joy for many years. The thing is though, as they’ve grown and focused more on services and integrating themselves deeper and deeper into my everyday life, I’ve stared to feel a little uncomfortable. Like maybe I’m not completely ok with the world’s biggest company being my desktop computer, my laptop computer, my phone, my watch, my tv box, my workout companion, my cloud storage, my email, my music, my photos, my headphones, my speakers. So much.

There’s still enough rebel in me that wants to root for the underdog. The little guy trying to do the right thing. System76 ticks the right boxes for me. Aesthetically pleasing design, small company, manufacturing in the US. If I were to do this, I’d eventually want to wean myself off the rest of the Apple ecosystem. Replace my Apple Watch with a Garmin Forerunner. Replace my iPhone with a Light Phone II and a Kobo ereader. Replace the Apple TVs with Rokus. Replace my HomePods with a couple more Sonos speakers. It’d be a long process.

And honestly, it’s a process that I’m not sure I’m up for. Especially when living in the Apple ecosystem is so good. There are tangible benefits from living inside Apple’s walled garden, and when it all works together it really feels like living in the future. And that’s when I love it all again. Despite Apple’s many faults, there’s still just nothing better out there.

The System76 box would be super cool, but I’d be stuck on the Intel platform while Apple speeds ahead with the M1. I’d have to abandon any biometric authentication and go back to typing my password for everything. What I think I’d miss the most though is the trackpad. I’ve had a Magic Trackpad for a few years now and I can’t imagine going back to a mouse. Multitouch is a revelation on any platform its used on, and the Mac is no different. It’s good for RSI issues, it’s amazing for gestures, and I love being able to long-click on words to get their definition. Of course, with an XMonad setup I wouldn’t be using the mouse much, but I’d still need it for navigating the web and the odd task in the window environment.

I don’t want my choice of computer to be making some kind of weird political or lifestyle statement, but then again, when you vote with your wallet what else can it be? I wish Apple had never become the behemoth that it is today, but it still makes the best computers.

Maybe I’m talking myself into that workstation, maybe I’m talking myself out of it. I honestly haven’t decided yet.

linux apple culture freebsd