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Your Computer Isn't Yours: A Response

A blog post by Jeffery Paul made the rounds on HackerNews and elsewhere, entitled: "Your Computer Isn't Yours."

In it, he explains how, through schemes like Apple's notarization and software signing practices, software you install on your Mac can be prevented from running, as Apple decides. That any software you open, any app icon you click on, in your own home, is sending out activity pingbacks to Apple.

His main point is, we have now crossed that line. I think he is absolutely correct.

He also correctly observes that the now-canceled Richard Stallman (love him or hate him) warned us about this decades ago.

The problem is one that is both philosophical and practical. I think Jeffery Paul handles the philosophical aspect well, so I'm going to try to take on the practical end of it based on my experience over the last year.

Realistically, there are three major computing platforms: Windows, macOS and Linux. Windows and macOS, commercial platforms, have been relatively open and free over the last few decades and have allowed end-users to flourish and readily mold high technology to whatever their needs. However the tightening down of both of these platforms in the last few years has caused many of us to start thinking about alternatives.

It's not that we all don't see the writing on the wall, we very much do, it's just that pragmatically there's really no where else to turn to. There are a few options to at least consider, however, and I started exploring them late 2019.

If you were to consider migrating from Windows and macOS to something a little more "free," one option you might pick is one of the many Linux distributions.

While it's true that the desktop environments on top of Linux have improved dramatically over the last decade or so, it seems that there's still enough rough edges to keep both casual users and power users away.

I don't mean to complain at you, reader, but I have tried installing and using Linux distributions on both low end and high end hardware, and I can't seem to make it stick. Things seem to start out fine, but then after a few weeks, things start to get slow and laggy feeling. The cruft builds up, in some way. And doing an upgrade instead of a clean install? Enough to bring the responsiveness of your computer to a choking halt.

To date, I have tried: Ubuntu and ElementaryOS. Which doesn't seem like a lot, but this was after hours and hours of researching these among other distributions such as Manjero, Fedora, and OpenSUSE.

In terms of responsiveness and speed, desktop Linux feels like a strong downgrade.

While many people do use desktop Linux as their daily driver, the truth is that Linux totally rocks on servers, and that's where it belongs. You can't get better, and there's a reason why (outside of being free) that Linux is probably more deployed on servers than even Windows Server. It's just that good. The tooling is great. It seems to never go down. Plus shell access.

However, I just couldn't stick to a desktop Linux.

Another contender you might consider is Haiku OS.

I absolutely have a fascination and subdued obsession with this OS. It's an open source mashup of the remnants of BeOS, plus bits and pieces they pull over from BSD and the Linux world (USB drivers, etc).

Where Linux falls down, Haiku shines. My personal opinion is that the desktop environment on Haiku is GREAT. I love it. It is designed for mouse input. It's legible and has all the affordances. It's got a cute 90's aesthetic. And most importantly, it feels fast and responsive!

The look, feel and responsiveness of this operating system is something I really love. Linux shells should take note, because as far as free operating systems go, Haiku has nailed it. I hope they never "modernize" it.

Like Linux, there are some downsides. The first, and most obvious is the lack of a mainstream browser, such as Firefox or Chrome. The Haiku team keeps a usually up to date build of WebKit bundled with the OS, but in my experience, it's kind of crashy and has some rendering issues. It works, but a serious browser is a must for today, and these serious browsers are incredibly complex and have I'm sure a ton of dependencies, many of which I'm sure have not been ported to work on Haiku.

A good browser is needed here and now, not sometime into the future. I don't hold out a lot of hope that this will be resolved in any notable period of time for Haiku.

Even without a web browser, I think Haiku could gain some traction if it had a better toolchain for building native applications. There's the C++ API, but it's old school C++, and the friction feels high to me. At one point in the past, someone nearly got .NET running on Haiku via ported Mono. I think having access to build C# or VB, plus the appropriate bindings to the system frameworks, would help this situation a lot. Unfortunately it looks like work kind of stalled, and perhaps the right talent to get this up and running isn't hanging around the Haiku circles.

It's a long shot, but I'd love to see Haiku win out on the desktop. They have the right idea. Hell, I love this OS so much that I wish I knew where to start with helping them out.

So there's two of the "best" options for migrating away from Windows and macOS, and they are both flawed.

Over the course of 2020, I have tried several times to see through all of my talk of migrating off of macOS (after nearly 20 years, by the way). What happens? Well, I get stalled out. 2020 has brought a great number of challenges, and it seems like every so often, when my interest peaks again, it's quickly followed by some debilitating effort to hit a deadline or something, and I come crawling back to macOS because it works, here and now.

I'm one of the crazy ones to actually attempt this. Most others won't.

So given the reality of the philosophical AND pragmatic concerns of general purpose computing today, we're kind of out of luck. I keep returning to this idea of data portability - that your data should be easily portable between computer systems, because the future may not have one or two operating systems that can do everything Windows and macOS can. The future may actually be treacherous and require constant change; it may require you to use more than one single operating system.

I think this also lays out the framework for the only real recourse we have at this point. The only way to circumvent the tightening lockdowns of Windows and macOS is to start self-hosting web applications on a Linux box in your house and accessing them through a browser. This means things like Plex for music and video, something like Piwigo for keeping a photo library. In doing this, no matter which operating system you use, no matter how many clean-installs you have to perform on your desktop system, your data will always be there, sitting on a server that you own inside of your own house.