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The problem with not-Apple

I’ve read a few articles over the last week or so that point to the Mac having lost its shine among developers. There was a time when the first things you did when you wanted to be a developer on the Free Software platform Ruby on Rails were that you bought an Apple PowerBook and the proprietary TextMate editor. There was a time when even Sun’s employees programmed Java on Macs. But now, I read things like this:

Right now, the only real option Apple has offered [vocal developer supporters] is the iMacs, which seems to be their answer for high end machines. That may work for some, even thought it won’t be their first preference for many. It’s clearly left many disgruntled and some thinking of jumping ship to other manufacturers, either running Linux or Windows. Source: Apple’s 2016 in review

Apple’s review process for [Safari browser] extensions is disorganized, arduous and quite frankly insulting Source: What Apple gives you for $100 as a Safari Extension Developer

the current state of the Mac has me considering whether it’s still the right platform for me. Source: Finding an Alternative to Mac OS X

It seems like Apple has either lost its way, that it has lost touch with what (some of) its customers want, or that it simply doesn’t care about those customers. Developers are a captive audience, and creative professionals can switch to Windows, I guess. Apple no longer considers them core. Source: New MacBook Pros and the State of the Mac

For me the sheen was long-gone back in November 2014, and in January 2015 I posted about switching (back) to Linux. That was around the last time the blogosphere was telling us all that Apple had lost their way – funny how these badly-run companies manage to sell more of their shit than their competitors for years on end, non? Anyway, it was the popularity of the meme that led me to post, but my story about falling out of love with their treatment of Free Software and the make-work associated with being in their developer programs which you can read about in that post is personal to me.

There’s a problem, though, and that problem is consistency. NeXTSTEP, more or less, can be summarised as “let’s make an Alto, but compromise on using technology that already exists”. So you get your Alto technology like OOP and ethernet and laser printers, but you also get the compromises – Display PostScript, UNIX, GNU, and C. There’s one system to learn (Objective-C and the various object “kits”), and then a few subsystems (UNIX and GNU, Mach, NetInfo, DPS) that make themselves known if you dig in.

Mac OS X is less of a NeXTSTEP than NeXTSTEP, but the romance of consistency still exists. I can tell myself, partly because it’s true but also because I invested over a decade of my life in working around the flaws in the model, that OS X is still Objective-C and kits with a wider selection of kits (Core Data, GameKit, PDFKit etc) and a few more compromises.

You definitely can’t say that of Linux, particularly as a developer. The application my group works on now is written in Qt, which is itself a nice framework (Qt with its meta-object compiler is to C++ as Objective-C is to C, in a way that GTK+ is not), that for the most part just sits on top of Linux (and other platforms) as a Qt application. The problem is, when you want to do something that isn’t in Qt’s equivalent of the app kit, you may not only have to choose one of a few different alternative technologies but actually choose all of them if your users might not all have chosen the same one.

Even on my own laptop that’s true. It is…well, for reasons that I just haven’t put the effort into solving, it’s actually running Ubuntu 16.10 in VirtualBox in Windows 10 (whomp!), but what I see is that it’s running Ubuntu 16.04. Now I could, and do, use GNUstep as an application development environment, and get my Objective-C and kits running on something like Unix just as I’m used to. But that inconsistency is always there, always at the forefront, always chipping away. Because the window manager does not use the Objective-C runtime, and uses weird X things to communicate with processes rather than Objective-C messages. The browser is Firefox, because while there is a GNUstep browser, it’s not very good (mostly because its WebKit is not up to date, but then WebKit is itself not Objective-C either). My Linux uses systemd to start processes, your Linux uses rc files/init files/upstart. My GNUstep is drawing with Cairo, yours is drawing with X intrinsics.

There’s a problem with that problem, though, and it’s that the consistency of Mac OS X is a fiction.

Are Dashboard widgets made out of JavaScript because of a compromise, or an aborted change of direction? Is the lack of consistency between the same API’s names for things in Swift and in Objective-C a cognitive overload that’s worth carrying around? Do I ignore the funky dialect of C++ that drivers are written in (I have written IOKit drivers and edited a book on the technology, so this isn’t a hypothetical concern)? While some ObjC APIs use message-sending and others use block callbacks, am I right to call them both the same thing? Does this process communicate with that process using XPC, Mach IPC, UNIX pipes, sockets, signals, or distributed notifications?

The romance turns out to be based on a lie, but on a powerful and compelling lie that’s easy to believe, and easy to miss even if you’re unsure whether it ever existed.

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