Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Only Mac in the Office

My boss is a sensible and understanding man, and a week or so back he gave me permission to stop using my company-issue Windows XP laptop, and move all my working activities to my MacBook Pro. I have the only Mac in the office: every other computer runs some sort of Windows. We have Exchange and Sharepoint, and all those other applications that make you wonder why so much "technological progress" produces such a sad result: slow, ugly and inefficient. Of course, I used to work for Sun, where we had much better email systems, so I am biased. However, I see occasional questions in the press questions about whether a Mac can work effectively in an office environment, and I'm here to tell you: it can.

Now the IT department has not gone out of their way to help me (for which I don't blame them: I've done that job, and if you once modify your systems to suit one user, you set a precedent that makes it hard to refuse other changes, and the next thing you know, you have unstable systems and major administration headaches). They haven't blocked my access, and my VMware Fusion virtual Windows XP machine can authenticate to the network, and I can access everything I need, either natively through Mac OS X, or through the Windows VM. My biggest problem is that I have to remember when to hit CTRL-c to copy, and when to hit CMD-c. I have so far resisted the temptation to remap anything, because this really isn't a big issue, and I don't want to program myself, by establishing a habit, in such a way that I have trouble with a normal keyboard layout on either system.

So what does this get me? Well first, I don't have to waste time waiting for the Windows machine to boot and login every morning (we have to lock our machines up at night, for security reasons). Why does Windows take so long to start up? And it's alleged "sleep function" never seems to work properly, so you have to boot up from cold anyway, and even when the thing gets to the login prompt, it'll take a few more minutes to complete login tasks. Every Windows machine I have ever had or used demonstrates this behaviour, regardless of manufacturer, and in most cases the configuration of the machine seems to make little difference. It's not the hardware, it's the operating system: how can anything that slow be considered normal? I can take my Mac out of my bag, and have it running in seconds. I'm guessing that it saves me a good half hour every day, just in time I don't have to spend waiting for Windows to start or stop, run it virus checkers, and do all the other things that it does so slowly. Of course, I should be grateful: it might be Vista. I've seen that, and I'm sorry: life is too short to use bad software.

I also have access to all my favourite tools - EagleFiler, Curio, DevonThink, Omnigraffle. I am happy, and happy people are more productive.

And the really big bonus: I am no longer exposed to Microsoft's well-developed ability to devastate a system with a single poorly tested patch. I've had experiences in the past where I have loaded Microsoft's recommended patches onto a system, and suffered serious problems as a result. And Windows suffers badly from "bit rot": the longer you use it, the worse it performs. Eventually, you have to do a reinstall to clean up the mess. But if you run Windows in a virtual machine, you can avoid all this pain. For example....

This morning, I ran Microsoft Update on the Windows XP. So far, it seems OK. But if it develops a problem, I have a simple and quick way out: Time Machine. My Time Machine backups have a copy of the VM pre-patching. If I need to, I can delete the "live" VM, and pull a known-good, working copy from backup in minutes. No time wasting reinstalls: I can roll back any time I like.

To make this as painless as possible, it is VITAL that you do not store working files (Word documents, spreadsheets, anything) inside the VM. All "data" files should be stored in a shared directory in the Mac's "real" file system: treat it as you would a shared drive on a network. Store nothing on the local machine (in this case, the VM): keep everything in the share. Then if the VM dies, you still have your data.
Standards Compatible Browsers

You may have noticed some fiddling about with the layout of this blog recently, without any new content appearing. The lack of new content is a by product of me being very busy at the moment, and the fiddling with the layout is by product of someone I know complaining that my blog didn't display properly in Internet Explorer.

Now to be perfectly honest, I don't think that anyone who would voluntarily use Internet Explorer would find much of interest in this blog. If you are trapped in a place where there is a mandatory standard operating environment which includes IE, then you have my deepest sympathies, but most people have a choice. Why anyone would choose IE, other than ignorance that there were alternatives, or just being too lazy to install something else, is incomprehensible to me. IE is a nasty piece of software. It is slow, it is insecure, and compared with the features offered in other browsers, it is roughly comparable to a Trabant.

I can't be bothered wasting any more time on this: I have worked out why my friend was having a problem (a combination of the defects in IE and a Windows security product) and I am not interested in messing with the layout of my blog to accommodate such foolishness. The foulness of IE is explained very clearly here, and I have nothing of significance to add. How to deal with the problem is explained by Stephen Fry here; there are other ways, but that will get you started. If you want to compare how different browsers render a web page, Browsershots is for you.

Seriously, the only thing IE is fit for is running Microsoft's vile "Windows Update". If you or your employer run a web site that is only tested for Internet Explorer, you might want to give some thought to the many people who use something else, and the business you may be losing if your site is not standards compliant.


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