Mac defections irrelevant

I realize that now even CNet has gotten into the act with publicizing the defection of one long-time Macintosh user (Mark Pilgrim) and another who is making noise about possibly switching (Tim Bray of Sun). So, it's time to make some more noise about what's really happening.

Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures at last week's Where 2.0 conference put on by O'Reilly, but what Carol and I saw there was a sea of Macintoshes. And a lot of them were the brand-spanking new Intel variety of Macintoshes. They were on what was probably one in three desks. At any given point in time, the local WiFi network hosted 30-50 people who had iChat running in Bonjour mode (no server necessary and you can see the people on your network). Furthermore, any time anyone on stage mentioned Macintosh compatibility, they got a big round of applause.

What does all of this geek-switching (such as it is) mean to the consumer population as a whole? Well, not much. It does mean that the alternatives to running Windows (and MacOS X) have gotten a bit better, because most of these folks wouldn't be contemplating leaving the Mac fold if they weren't getting some amount of satisfaction from their replacement (mostly Ubuntu) . This means that experts are now finding the shrink-wrapped versions of alternative operating systems passing for acceptable. That's nice. However, it is basically meaningless for the billions (that's right, no exaggeration here, really B billions) who are only going to choose between Windows and MacOS. In the end, most people run the OS installed on their machine at the factory. They're paying for it when they buy the hardware, and they're going to use it because that's what their manufacturers will support (such as they do).

Most people are still going to need to use Microsoft applications to read and write Microsoft file formats, and for the time being (until the various Office clones get better and easier to use) that means OS X and Windows. Don't get me wrong, I'm all over the idea of open formats for data, as long as they're extensible and provide me with a way to use cutting edge software to do what I need to do. However, many organizations exchange data in Microsoft formats without even thinking about it. How many times a week at work do you get an email message that is either typed in word and sent as an attachment or pasted into a mail program after being written?

Now, a number of folks on the net have gone to lengths to dissect each of the reasons for the complaints by these two figureheads, so I'm not going to. You can read a good set of information from Daring Firball. But, I will attempt to address a couple of thoughts.

First, and most important: back up your data. One of the big complaints of Mark Pilgrim is that he lost data using the Macintosh. Clearly, he has points when it comes to the proprietary data formats used by programs such as iMovie, Final Cut Pro, and even things like iCal, iTunes, and Apple Mail, and most notoriously iPhoto. I, myself have been frustrated at the lack of ability to easily export metadata from iPhoto's data store.

However, I'd like to raise two thoughts related to this: data in proprietary formats can be rendered useless when the software that writes that data (and reads it) goes away. Keeping source backups of everything from video to photos to music is absolutely essential for long-term archiving. Just as you would not save just the 640x480 pictures of your nephews that you email to people, tossing out the 8 megapixel original (basically 25 times the resolution), you should not let take your CDs, burn them into a lossy format (even one that sounds good) and then throw out the CDs. Original source material is the highest fidelity information you have and is most likely to survive to the next stage. Also, data stored in open standards (as encouraged by Mr. Pilgrim) is certainly most likely to survive as well.

Second, regular backups are necessary to make sure that all of your data is preserved. It doesn't matter if it's in a proprietary format or a standard one if the program you're running eats it or if the hard drive you're using bites the dust (can you tell i haven't had dinner yet?). This is crucial to getting data back into the system and being able to recover it under catastrophic failure scenarios.

So, I just said open formats are good, doesn't Mark have a point that we should all flee to them now and stop using proprietary software?

No. I don't think so. I like open formats. I even keep a lot of documents in Text formats. I use XML liberally in my own software (mainly because I don't like to write I/O code), and I like to see other people doing the same (mostly because I don't like to have to interpret information coming from their bad I/O code). However, there are many times when a proprietary format doesn't have a valid (or high-fidelity) replacement.

For example, consider things like your camera. Many modern cameras have a "raw" file format, which is specific to the manufacturer of the camera and needs to be "developed" in order to make it show something useful. These files are basically the raw data taken directly from the sensors in the camera and, as such, are the highest fidelity information that is available. Until Adobe came out with its Digital Negative format (DNG), there was no high-resolution archival format for data of this kind. Now, Adobe owns the patents to this format (such as they are or may be), and has so far decided to license them for free to everyone, which is nice, and they are trying to push the format as a standard for archiving. Raw formats were available for a number of years before Adobe came up with this format, and technically it's not an Open Format, as it has a patent license associated with it (a very liberal one, I'll add). However, the point is that if you stayed away from proprietary formats in lieu of open standards (like JPEG), you'd be giving up fidelity on older information for standards compliance. Now, we can convert our camera raw files to DNG format and we have a well-known format that preserves all of the data.

I have no particular excuse for Apple on iPhoto. I understand their need to cache information, but I don't understand why they don't want to put the metadata someplace that is a bit more transparent. Maybe we'll see that in a future version. However, prior to some recent extensions to the major file formats, there was really no good way to associate arbitrary information with GIF/JPEG/RAW files. Now, Apple could have chosen to make a file format, publish it, and stick with it forever--but that's going to slow down their future development, especially if/when they realize they've done something wrong. And, for the time being, the format that they're using for cataloging is actually an XML format that you can read and interpret (which I'm doing in at least one project I'm currently working on).

This list goes on for other applications from Apple and other software manufactures. As a matter of fact, Apple released a key product (Keynote) complete with the XML schema on the first day. Their thinking was that although they didn't have an existing standard to use, they could make it easier for others to interact with their software if they provided the file format and guaranteed a variety of things about the way that it is written and read. As such, they have benefitted and so have the users. There are a number of utilities and a lot of templates for the package.

In the end, proprietary data file formats aren't going to go away, however we can hope that over time they permute into formats that are successful and open. Sometimes this means exporting (with it's possible loss of fidelity) and sometimes it means transcoding (no fidelity loss but a format change), and sometimes it means that the programs (like Keynote) work in a published space all of the time. However, much of this is dependent upon the type of software and data you're dealing with.

In closing, I'm not running away from the Macintosh and don't think I will be any time in the near future. So far, I'm impressed with the hardware that has come out of the partnership with Intel and I continue to be happy with the direction of Apple's software (both applications and operating system). And I continue to push the same on my friends and family (mainly because I don't like doing technical support and the Mac is just a much simpler beast to use than anything else out there).