Headaches of Switching to Mac OS X for Development

When you’ve been working primarily in one environment for nearly two decades, switching to a new one is never painless.

This is the fifth of several articles about my  journey developing an application for NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope mission.  Earlier articles can be found here:

Let me say right from the beginning that I have nothing against OS X.  In fact, there are many nice things about the operating system and it definitely looks nice.  It’s just that I’ve been using some form of Linux (mostly RedHat and it’s derivatives) since 1997 and was using VAX and Solaris before that.  That was for school and work.  At home I run Linux and Windows.  I’ve never owned a Macintosh computer although I’ve occasionally used one here and there through the years.

I knew when I started developing the mobile app, I would eventually find myself on a Mac for development work because of Apple’s restriction that iOS apps can only developed on OS X.  And I knew there were going to be adjustments to be made.  Here are the ones I ran into that caused me the most grief.

Focus follows mouse

The first was the lack of “focus follows mouse” behavior on OS X.  I’ve spent the last 15 years with my windows set up so that when I move the mouse, the window it is over has focus and I can immediately start typing.  Many times I’ll have multiple terminal windows open (sometimes with just a line or two showing) and slide the mouse from window to window and launch programs.

No longer having that as an option definitely caused me several false starts and a bunch of retyping.  It wasn’t so much of an issue for the mobile development and that was mostly being done in a single IDE plus the emulators, but for my other Mac project, which involved a lot of building and compiling and running tools in the terminal windows, it was definitely causing a hassle.

I can understand completely why OS X doesn’t have this as an option.  The windowing system design with the menu bar always at the top of the screen and not attached to the individual windows definitely makes the idea of focus follows mouse undesirable.  It’s just something I’m used to that I miss on the Mac.

Command vs Control Key and Muscle Memory

I think of all the adjustments this one has caused me the most grief.  My hands have been trained, over the past two decades, to know exactly where the Control Key is located for all my keyboard shortcuts and the spacing between that key and the other keys in the command.  All of those same short cuts, on a Mac, use the command key which is one key over and which I still continue to miss for the first hour or two working on the Mac unless I make a conscious effort.  Eventually, I remember that I’m on a Mac and hit the right key, but in the mean time, since my IDE responds differently to Control-C versus Command-C for example, I’m having to hit a lot of extra key strokes to recover form my mistake.

Middle Mouse Button ≠ Paste

This one I use extensively and it’s absence drives me batty.  Instead of doing this:

  • highlight selection
  • move mouse to target window
  • click the middle button

I have to do the following:

  • highlight selection
  • Command- (not Control-) C to copy
  • move to the new window
  • click to activate the window (remember, no focus follows mouse)
  • Command- (again not Control-) V to paste.

In my Linux windowing environment, this works everywhere, no questions asked.  In fact, I can’t think of a single place where I’ve not been able to use it.

On the Mac, it does work (sort of) in the terminal windows.  But in the Titanium IDE it doesn’t work at all.  Maybe it works in other places but I don’t use much else right now and where I do spend my time, it doesn’t work.

In the terminal windows, it works like on Linux but with one exception.  When you middle click, it doesn’t count that as clicking to activate the window.  A lot of times I’m pasting in a command and I then want to hit Enter and have it execute.  On the Mac, the Enter key keystroke is captured by the window you copied from, not the one you just middle clicked in.  You have to middle click and then left click to activate the window you just pasted to.  Maybe Linux does the same with click to focus window behavior but with focus follows mouse enabled, the window I’m in is the active one so it’s not an issue.

Fuzzy Screen

I’ve seen flame wars and huge discussions on the font rendering engine on the Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux and I don’t intend to reignite those, but for me, the Mac screen is fuzzy.  I should say that I’m using an external 24″ 1920×1200 monitor on the Mac (it’s an HP LA2405wg)  and it is being driven by the Mac at it’s native resolution (the Mac is a MacBook with a 1440×900 LCD screen that is just way too small for a guy that uses dual 1920×1200 screens on all his other systems).  I get used to it after a bit but whenever I have to be switching back and forth between systems, its definitely an irritant.

Slow Response

I don’t think this really has anything to do with the fact that the computer is a Mac, per se, other than the fact that the machine has an old Core 2 Duo processor where my other systems are a Intel i7 and an AMD Phenom which are both quad-core and much faster.  I’m running Mountain Lion on a system that originally shipped with Leopard and I can feel it.  Luckily, this is soon to be rectified and I’m getting a new MacBook in a month or two with a faster processor and more RAM.

The other area of slow response is when I do switch between systems.  I have all my computers hooked up to a pair of monitors, keyboard, and mouse via a KVM switch.  For some reason the Mac has issues with the switch.  Many times it doesn’t connect the keyboard and mouse and sometimes just doesn’t grab the keyboard.  It also doesn’t seem to respond very well to the video switch when the screen saver is on.  Again, I think these are mainly issues of the old hardware and are only an issue when I switch to the Mac for the first time any given day.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the experience of working on the Mac has been fine.  I don’t have adapters to do the dual screen setup like I do with my other computers (only one video out on the MacBook) but that typically isn’t an issue since my work on the Mac is fairly focused.

Would I ever switch to a Mac as my primary system?  Probably not, although it’s not out of the question.  If I was doing mobile development full time and had to target iOS, then I might just out of necessity.  But while that’s only a side project, I think I’ll stick with what I’ve been using longer and am more familiar with.

I think the biggest thing I learned by starting to do development on the Mac is how ingrained some habits are and what I took for granted in my usual environment.  It has helped me to realize what is core to my workflow and what is extras provided by the environment I’m working on.

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