A Personal History of UNIX Tool Management on OS X

When I first switched to Mac from Linux I used fink to provide the simple software installation (and removal!) to which I had become addicted while using Debian. In addition to being command line compatible, fink also shipped the software as binaries which on the relatively slow CPUs of the day meant the software was able to be used much more immediately than if it had to be compiled.

About three years ago, I noticed that the fink binary distribution no longer had all the packages I wanted to use. The website would indicate the package was available but actually it would be only available in source code form and my aging laptop did not have the CPU or disk space available to compile not just the package but all its dependencies. When I upgraded that old laptop, and compiling everything from source seemed feasible, I decided that the MacPorts project had more community activity and jumped ship.

MacPorts worked very well. The initial install took time, and worked the fan of my MacBook quite hard, but once the base packages were compiled, subsequent software installs and updates were mostly painless. MacPorts also made it vary easy to tweak installs using its variants mechanism. However MacPorts’ downfall, in my opinion, is that it is not content to be just a way of augmenting the existing UNIX tools on my Mac but that it wants to be a self-contained operating system itself. For example, in order to install the git-svn tool MacPorts was going to download, compile and install not only an older version of Perl than is shipped with 10.6 but also a second version of the subversion tool that Apple have already provided. I am sure this is a good way to deliver a powerful and stable system, but it felt like MacPorts was taking over.

I am not the first to think this since someone has developed homebrew. It has the explicit goals of playing nicely with the OS defaults and programming language specific distribution systems such as RubyGems, CPAN and PyPi. I am pleased to be report that homebrew was very quick to setup and install the few remaining UNIX packages to which I remain addicted. The installer makes the assertion that every user on your system should be in the staff group,1 but the script was very simple to modify and I have submitted my version back to the maintainer.

The one package where I do not find homebrew satisfactory is LaTeX. homebrew uses the TeX Live distribution rather than the tetex package I have used in the past. However TeX Live is a humungous 1GB download and some quick research showed that it was very much a kitchen sink package with many sub-packages that were completely unnecessary for me. Instead I highly recommend the 85MB download (234MB installed) BasicTeX package which has proved to be entirely adequate for my needs, even if it does have softie GUI installer!

  1. I noticed that on a fresh install of 10.6 no one is a member of the staff group. It appears that all Administrator users are members of the admin group though, and since it seems to only allow admins to change the machine’s homebrew install, I forked this gist and replaced all the instances of staff with admin. [back]