This week my work started the process of buying me a PowerMac – a 12 core, 24Gb RAM monster that will replace my 8 core, 16Gb RAM windows machine. I also received a new macbook, and my colleagues are also going to or planning to buy macs in their next round of upgrades. This means that unless something catastrophic happens with funding in the next week, I will have completely abandoned Windows in my work life. I have long since abandoned it at home, but workplaces have tended to be more conservative about the change, but it’s finally going to happen.

I have noticed over the past few years that a lot of people working at the crunchy end of science are using macs, not Windows machines. This has included people working in computer graphics research, nuclear physics, veterinary epidemiology, medicine and epidemiology. It appears that if you need to do numerical computation, Mac OS X is increasingly the platform that you do it on. I guess this is because Mac OS has been much easier to develop for since it switched to a unix-based system, and so now many of the key tools of numerical computation are available on it: Matlab, Stata, LateX and R are all implemented very well on Apple machines. Indeed, in my experience these packages tend to be easier and more pleasant to use on Apple – LateX editors are much more pleasant and more readily available, R’s script-writing tools are much better, and there is not really any difference that I can see between matlab and R on the two platforms.

I think this means the end of the dominance Windows had in this area since it forced Unix out. This would make the scientific computing market a rare (I guess) example of a company with essentially complete market dominance losing its monopoly place purely on quality-related issues. I’m not a fascist about any one computer system (except Linux – I try to avoid Linux) but I do find Mac OS much nicer to work with, and not just because the machines are pretty. Something about the way it works is just less sticky than Windows, and it seems to trouble me less with extraneous stuff. I think it’s probably something to do with the attitude to design, and also with the greater degree of sympathy between hardware and software (which comes, I guess, from Steve Jobs’s obsession with keeping everything in the one company). I think it might also have something to do with the extra money one pays for the machines.

As far as money goes, the common complaint that you can get the same performance at half the price with a Windows machine is, in my experience, sadly misguided. The very worst thing you can do with Windows is buy a cheap machine that has good stats on paper – or worse still, build your own. You’ll be paying in time and Insanity Points for the rest of the 2 years you use it before you throw it away.  I don’t know what it is about computers, but their performance is like a symphony orchestra, and if you scrimp on any part of the process the whole thing leaves you feeling bad. You’re better off getting an Apple that is, on paper, inferior for the same price, than assuming that the extra 0.2GHz in that PC chip are going to work as they should for half the price.

Of course, this is all classic flamewar material, but my observation is that the scientific computing world is moving away from Windows and taking Apple seriously as a computational tool. This is particularly striking given that just 10 or so years ago Mac was seen as exclusively the tool of inner-city designers with black clothes and slanty hair, or girly magazine writers who value a cute case over a decent OS. Well, perhaps those girly magazine writers were right all along …

As an aside, and to give all those reading this a common enemy, I recently downloaded the cute 2D dungeon crawler Dungeons of Dredmor. I can’t say it’s holding my attention, but it is cute. On their blog, the developers talk about the work they’re doing to port the game to iPad (an excellent idea!), and they have a few things to say about the commercial and technical problems involved in porting it to Android. In the process they also reveal some interesting issues about Linux. In answer to the question “Will the game be available for Android?” they say:

This… is an interesting question. While SDL 1.3 supports Android, at least partly, there are two reasons why we might not go ahead and do this. The first is insufficient demand – my personal experience with Android on previous products have been that Android sales are a very small fraction of iPad sales (in fact, less than the ratio of Linux sales to Windows sales.) Consequently, it’s not entirely clear that this is something that we will actually make money on – especially on the tablet market, where Android tablets are still somewhat of an unknown factor and where the iPad still occupies 75% of the market share.

The second reason why we might not support Android is because the infrastructure for Android is so, so, hideously broken. Again, it’s *worse* than the Linux situation, which is kind of amazing. In order for us to ship on Android, we have to be convinced (more specifically, as the Technical Director for the studio *I* have to be convinced) that we can actually ship an Android version of Dredmor and have it work. Given that there are a number of horror stories floating around about people who test their software on 300 Android devices and get everything working, only to release and have everything explode on Day 1… I’m just not confident that we can do this. It is possible that we might put together an Android release for a *very* limited selection of devices (Kindle Fire, Samsung Galaxy Tab, ASUS EEE Pad Transformer) where we have some hope of having things run in a fashion that we’re happy with. That said, we’re still looking into this, and the iPad port (by virtue of the market share we mentioned above) is still the top priority.

There are phrases in there that are genuine music to the ears of someone with a strong anti-linux fetish. “Worse than linux … which is kind of amazing.” ha! Also note the disturbing information about the ratio of iPad to other tablet sales. I wonder if Apple are going to become the windows of the smartphone and tablet marketplace, completely dominating all other products and stifling development on anything else? And if this market dominance is built, in the short term at least, on higher quality product, what are the chances of a rival OS surviving? The “I hate apple” niche market is probably going to get smaller and smaller as the virtues of Apple products become better known (as has happened in the scientific computing world).

I guess we’ll have to just learn to love our new slanty-fringed overlords …

 

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