How Does Ubuntu 9.04 Measure Up to Mac OS X?

Bypassing Windows altogether, Mark Shuttleworth has stated that OS X is the operating system to beat. With Ubuntu's 9.04 now in wide distribution, we look at how it stacks up with the competition.

Apps Apps Apps

The worst-kept secret of the OS wars is that Apple sells OS X to consumers by selling its applications, not by selling the OS itself.  Sure, occasionally a new Dock feature will make it into John Hodgeman and Justin Long commercials, but most of the hard marketing is done on iPhoto, iTunes, iWork and the rest.  Ubuntu, of course, ships with far more bundled applications than OS X, but from a usability perspective the system defaults are where the head-to-head comparison belongs.

The “iLife” bundle of consumer-level media apps has rough parallels in Ubuntu’s default media suite, except for the still-tricky video editing and authoring pair iMovie and iDVD, and the Web design tool iWeb.  The music player Rhythmbox is the closest to its Apple counterpart iTunes (excluding the major-media-company content store, of course), and F-Spot is an easy-to-use substitute for iPhoto.  Audio editor GarageBand is trickier; both Audacity and Jokosher are slick consumer editing programs, but neither is installed by default. 

Video editing continues to lag behind on Linux, but some stable and easy-to-use editors are approaching the usability of iMovie, such as PiTiVi. There is currently no DVD authoring tool matching the ease of Apple’s iDVD.  I personally have never been a fan of the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) sites produced by iWeb, but they are popular and there is no equivalent packaged for Ubuntu — the last real contender, Kompozer (a KDE application), has been dormant since 2007.  On a bright note, although not officially part of iLife, the video players QuickTime and DVD Player are easily equalled by Ubuntu’s Totem, perhaps surpassing them when you consider supported formats.

Ubuntu’s OpenOffice, on the other hand, is orders of magnitude more powerful than Apple’s iWork — no surprise when you remember its long development history.  Likewise, the Internet combo of Firefox, Evolution, and Pidgin is more powerful than Apple’s Safari, Mail, Addressbook, iCal, and iChat, while remaining easy to use.   Linux is built for Internet communication, so it should be no surprise that its core applications have been refined over the years. 

Apple’s XCode and Automator are both highly-respected developer tools, but again Linux offers more, and for a specialized task like software development, the ground rules are different — coding an application can’t be as simple as creating a playlist in iTunes, what matters more is ease of use over the long run, where Linux tools like Eclipse have a strong history.  So, too, Apple’s multi-boot solution Boot Camp pales in comparison to the installation options available through Ubuntu’s installer and GRUB — Boot Camp is Windows-only, and only allows for two OS partitions.

For most utility applications, the two OSes are on approximately equal footing.  But Apple does have two strong offerings with no workable parallel in Ubuntu: Time Machine and iSync.  Time Machine is an integrated backup tool, which simplifies the process of backing up user data, settings, system files, and applications.  In contrast, although there are scores of backup programs packaged for Ubuntu in the Apt repositories, none of them are enabled by default, and most are significantly harder to use than Time Machine.  Searching through the Ubuntu forums, most users who do backups (which is not many) seem to either tweak or hand-roll an rsync-based solution, or perform manual backups.  Clearly there is room for an integrated solution.

OpenSolaris has a snapshot function built right into GNOME which makes use of its ZFS file system. Linux has all the tools required for a very powerful backup regime, such as rsync and hardlinks, indeed some projects have already emerged, such as FlyBack and TimeVault.

iSync synchronizes PIM data (contacts, calendar events, to-dos) between OS X’s desktop applications and mobile devices.  To the best of my knowledge, no mainstream Linux distribution ships a PIM sync application; most rely on the built-in import/export tools of their default email client (limiting them to VCARD, CSV, and other tricky file conversion options), or at best have a handful of outdated single-platform utilities buried somewhere in the package repository.  Certainly nothing approaches the mobile device detection and automatic sync provided by iSync.  This is a shame when you consider how much more important mobile platforms are becoming every day, and especially when you consider that there are open source sync solutions out there — some, like Funambol, extremely robust.

Apple’s MobileMe (formerly .Mac) online service also deserves mention; it is not a desktop application, but it does provide services useful to the desktop like online synchronization.  Ubuntu has already proven its chops with integrated online services, notably the bug reporting tool integrated with Launchpad.  Regardless of whether Canonical would ever want to offer a for-pay IMAP and Web hosting service like MobileMe, the easy integration with existing desktop apps of MobileMe is commendable. Ubuntu has recently attacked this area with the release of Ubuntu One, which allows users to sync files and share work with others or even to work remotely. The service is still in beta, but it looks promising.

Finally, don’t forget how easy it is to download and install apps on Ubuntu.  Thousands of packages are available through the official repositories, and only in rare instances will you need to download and install a package manually.  By contrast, Apple’s software download service is woefully underpowered and a pain to navigate.  Installing a package on OS X generally involves hunting for the project’s Web site, downloading an image file, opening it, authenticating yourself with your password, then manually copying the application onto your hard drive.  Synaptic’s point and click is considerably faster, and handles configuration automatically.

Grade: C+, for big gaps in coverage in particular areas (like backup and video editing), plus missing defaults where Linux apps do exist (like audio editing and sync).  As with the previous section, part of this grade is due to weaknesses in underlying applications, but the end result is the same for the user.

Apple Ubuntu
iTunes Rhythmbox
iPhoto F-Spot
iMovie none; several are under active development
GarageBand no default; Jokosher and Audacity are good options
iDVD no default; several are available in repositories
iWeb none
QuickTime Totem
DVD Player Totem
Mail Evolution
Safari Firefox
iCal Evolution
iChat Pidgin for IM, Ekiga for VoIP
PhotoBooth Cheese
Front Row no default; Elisa and MythTV are available
Addressbook Evolution
iWork suite OpenOffice
MobileMe none; Conduit and others are in development
Time Machine no default; many options in repositories
iSync none; Funambol is an independent solution
XCode Eclipse, Anjuta, KDevelop and more available
Automator Many scripting languages available, though none target desktop as a whole
Boot Camp GRUB
Aperture no default; Rawstudio and UFRaw are good options
Final Cut none; Cinelerra is unstable, Lumiera still far from release
Logic Pro no default; Ardour is available
Shake no default; Blender does compositing in addition to 3-D<

Table: OS X applications and Ubuntu alternatives

Next: Software Updates

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