Wednesday, February 13, 2008

You're buying a what?

I'm shedding my PC heritage and buying a Mac.

It probably isn't appropriate to refer to a 'PC heritage.' I've been developing on PCs with DOS, OS/2 or Windows my entire professional career. When I worked with mobile devices, it was on Windows CE. but my heritage is System V and free software. It started with a the heaviest computer I've ever owned.

The Motorola VME/10 was a $10,000 workstation running System V on a Motorola VME bus architecture powered by the stunning 68010. Virtual Memory? Oh yeah!

I was lucky to have picked up two of these boat anchors for $800 or $900 from a guy who scored them from the ashes of a startup he was part of. They might have been his last paycheck. I'm sure they didn't fit in his wallet. For a guy at a University, having a UNIX workstation in your apartment...if that wasn't cool, I'm not sure what was. I'm pretty sure my wife didn't get what cool was, because she never really saw the point. Thanks Pete, I'm in your debt for having the coolest computer in school!

Anyway, when I got those machines, the first question was, what am I going to do with them? I had a K&R C compiler and, uh, well, did I mention the C compiler? I shouldn't forget vi, either. The first task was to get file transfer software. I pulled the Kermit sources from the internet by downloading them to one of the school machines and doing line capture until I had the entire set of sources. I then compiled and hunted errors until I had kermit.

After that, it was all go...JOVE, a spreadsheet, bison, flex, zmodem...all of the utilities so I could do my school work. I even had to generate a termcap for the display so I could dial into the university and use the workstation as a dumb terminal.

Effectively, the system was a blank slate, and I would tie up the phone line every night downloading source code and spend my afternoons and evenings studying and trying to figure out how to configure and compile the next thing I wanted. It was truly CS student heaven.

ANSI C was all the rage, and I couldn't turn my assignments in using K&R C, I went for the big thing. I started porting GCC 1.6. GCC 1.6 was my big challenge. The GCC code generator emitted the assembly in a different format than my assembler used. So, I hacked the output tables in hopes of generating assembly language my assembler could grok. After a few things that wouldn't compile, I did it... hello.o! Linked and loaded, my computer told me 'hello world!' and I rejoiced.

Now to build the assembler, rebuild the first stage compiler with the default 68010 tables, then build the optimized compiler, gdb and then...graduation.

PCs were the standard for commerce and shrink-wrapped software was king. System V took a back seat, and despite many tries, I never again was able to drive EMACS the way I did at the University. I shed my true heritage for the thing that would put food on the table.

Fast-forward to 2007. I'm running Ubuntu on my laptop and loving it. Ubuntu is so close to being something a consumer could use. It is litterally *this* close. I spend a bunch of time getting it working, and work it does on my old P3 Mobile. It works way better than Windows ever did, doing 3D desktop graphics and animations just like Vista might...if it could run on this hardware. Sadly, the laptop is old, the battery is dying and I need something with some kick.

The geek in me is loving having to do some of the stuff that no sane PC user would ever really want to do, for instance building drivers for my "rare" (read not valuable) net card. Get a free DB schema designer running, you know, all of the stuff that you could spend all of your time on but probably shouldn't.

To get a truly great laptop experience, you need the hardware vendors to want to spend time and money on drivers.

After looking at laptops that can run Windows and Linux, I realize that it costs $100 more for a Mac of similar class to the Lenovo I'm considering. Having a supported, battery-optimized FreeBSD OS with a very solid UI, plus the ability to run Ubuntu and Windows? In VMs? Macs can now run anything and the PC isn't quite everything anymore.

A new day has come, and I'm using the hardware from a company I thought was cool as a kid, but was never something I thought I'd want.

If all goes well, Monday is delivery day. I hope I find a right trackpad button in the bottom of the box!

Photo provided under Creative Commons License by Flickr user SeenyaRita

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