Homebrew is the best thing about macOS

Posted on July 17, 2018

This winter I asked my department for a MacBook Pro. And not just any MacBook Pro, but one that was top of the line, with a 15” inch display, 16GiB of RAM, and a Vega-based GPU. I have used Linux exclusively for over ten years, but plain curiosity and a desire to ensure that my code works well on macOS made me stray from my usual staple of ThinkPads.

Now, don’t get me wrong - the MacBook is not a bad laptop. The build quality in particular is great (except for the keyboard), the display is very good, and the speakers are perhaps the best I have seen in a laptop. Physically, it feels like a premium product. But my old ThinkPad X250 was both just as good overall, and significantly cheaper. Machine-wise, the lack of a proper docking port on the MacBook means I have to fiddle with four different cables (power, USB/keyboard/mouse/ethernet, monitor, audio) when I show up to work in the morning. Sometimes a bit more fiddling becomes necessary during the day, as the USB-C connectors do not have a particularly tight fit, and may dislodge if the laptop gets bumped.

However, these are hardware issues, and physical gizmos always have annoying flaws. It was expected, and I can mostly tolerate that. My ThinkPad certainly also had oddities. What I was especially looking forward to was macOS. After using Linux for over a decade, I had gotten used to all the various quirks, flaws, lack of polish, and need for manual configuration that invariably accompanies a complex system that does not have a paid QA team testing it. I suppose that, over the years, I had built up some unreasonable expectation that the commercial operating systems would have none of the bugs, issues, and incompatibilities that every Linux user eventually encounters. Boy was I disappointed.

Off the top of my head, I have had the following problems:

None of these are catastrophic issues. I certainly deal with things of similar severity on my Linux desktop at home. But here’s the thing: the overall experience is not all that more polished than a Linux distribution running GNOME. It is a decent operating system, but not worth the cost.

However, there is one glimmer of sunshine in these murky clouds: Homebrew, the user-run package manager. The interesting aspects of Homebrew are not technical, but social. Undoubtedly, systems like Nix are fare more sophisticated. But Homebrew has a laser-like focus on approachability and simplicity of use. This also extends to package development. In any of my long (and continuing) years of Linux, I never created a single .deb or .rpm package. I always found the tooling too byzantine (such as macro languages that generate shell scripts), and the process for inclusion into repositories too onerous. No doubt I could figure it out were I sufficiently motivated, but the friction has so far been too great. Doubly so, since I would have to learn multiple package systems if I wanted to reach most Linux users.

Homebrew, in contrast, is much simpler. A package definition is a straightforward Ruby script that uses a simple DSL to define how to fetch and build the software. Inclusion into the repository is by a simple pull request on GitHub. After this, an automatic system takes over and produces precompiled “bottles” of the package. Very simple!

Part of the simplicity and usability of Homebrew is due to its limited scope. It exists exclusively to manage user-level applications and libraries, not the operating system as a whole. RPM and DEB solve much more complex problems, and so the solutions are understandably also more complicated. For good reasons, they also cannot depend on a centralised proprietary service like GitHub.

But the naturally limited scope of not the only reason for Homebrews usability. Its maintainers quite aggressively try to limit the degrees of freedom in the system, to avoid unexpected (and untested) behaviour. Packages must built cleanly, without macOS-specific patches, and optional components are frowned upon. While I did at times become frustrated by some of the rules (no stack for building Haskell packages, for example), I ultimately managed to follow them, and the end result might well be a simpler system for everyone. It does sometimes keep out complex packages, but I suppose the hope is that it will incentivize maintainers to clean up their act and simplify their build requirements. I strongly believe in robustness-through-simplicity, particularly by removing features and configuration knobs, so I sympathise with this approach.

Of course, the main problem with Homebrew is that I don’t much like the operating system on which it runs. But perhaps even Linux has room for an approachable non-distribution-specific package manager for non-system applications. I will certainly have to take a look at Linuxbrew.

Note: I had originally wanted to title this post Homebrew is the only good thing about macOS, but that felt a bit too provocative.