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09 June 2010, 16:24

Why open source developers should thank Apple Why open source developers should thank Apple

(and why Apple should thank open source)

by Dj Walker-Morgan

From operating systems to phones, Apple has raised the competitive bar and opened doors for open source, even though their own use of open source has attracted criticism.

Apple has become the enemy-du-jour for the free software and open source movements, with complaints ranging from the Apple App Store's censorship of applications to Apple's use of DRM. But Apple have also set a high competitive bar for open source, and proprietary developers to exceed. For too long, the competition for open source was defined by Microsoft's offerings, which had a market dominance inherited from the 1990s. However, Microsoft's operating systems are rarely described as things of beauty and elegance, and as time has gone on, the competitive bar created by Microsoft has been getting lower and lower to the point where "Not crashing every day" became the mark of a "better operating system". As the bar lowered, especially so with the arrival of Windows Vista, so developers became complacent, thinking "If we don't crash every day we are better than Windows".

Then Steve Jobs reborn Apple, driven by his experience creating the NeXT Unix workstations, arrived at the start of the millennium with a Unix based operating system, a modern GUI and a level of polish that had been rare to find in operating systems. Coupled with a high quality industrial design process for the hardware, it created a computing platform with a lot of potential.

It did take Apple a number of iterations of Mac OS X to make it a compelling offering, and in some ways Apple's policy of only creating operating systems for their own hardware acted as a buffer, as only Mac users got to see what was going on. Even so, by the middle of the decade, a steady stream of developers were switching over to Mac OS X and people began to ask why. Although the Mac hasn't displaced Windows from its dominance, it has created a disruption in the market. Even Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth regularly refers to Mac OS X's user experience as the experience to aspire to.

Apple were already looking elsewhere for their next product, the iPhone. Many people forget what the mobile marketplace looked like before the iPhone; the mobile telecom carriers ruled the business. The only real way to get your application onto a phone was to do a deal with one of these carriers and wait for them to bring it to market. The same applied to the handset makers who would create specific feature sets as requested by the mobile telecom carriers. It was a business fraught with back room deals and agreeable handshaking. Free software was never going to get a look in with a business model built entirely around creating "value added services" for the carriers.

Apple came along and said they were not going to play that game. On the back of an exclusivity deal with AT&T in the US, they demanded unlimited data plans and control over when firmware updates were distributed to their devices. When Apple later launched the App Store and native applications for the iPhone, again they routed around the carriers and took control of the means of distribution. This created a business which allowed the smallest developers to compete with software giants.

It is arguable that if this had not happened, we would not have seen one of free software and open source's greatest successes, Android, in its current form. By knocking over the carriers control, Apple opened a door for Google who were able to talk to handset makers and offer them a free operating system for their mobile phones which could use a Google App Store to offer applications for their new handsets. The carriers could only look on as they saw two of the biggest companies in the business relegate them to acting as dumb pipes for their content. Android phones compete with Apple's iPhone now, and as the debate rages over whether users want freedom or curation, there is now an actual choice for consumers to make, rather than being fed the handset the carriers think they can lock down most effectively to raise their revenues.

Most recently, Apple launched the iPad, their take on the tablet computer. Tablets had been around in various form factors for years, but Apple approached it with their now trademark "User experience first" methodology, ignoring the tendency of other companies to focus on feature lists, and created a clean, simple platform. Other companies attempted to blunt Apple's iPad launch by announcing their own tablet offerings before Steve Jobs showed the world the iPad, but in the months following and after two million iPads sold, those companies have shelved their previous plans and gone back to the drawing board. Intel and Nokia, for example, realised that a fragmented mobile Linux market would do neither of them any good and pooled their resources to release MeeGo. HP decided to acquire Palm and its Linux based WebOS for their future tablet, and other device plans. Linux is now shaping up to be at the core of a large percentage of future mobile devices.

Apple's own use of open source has lead the company to be criticised, but their use of FreeBSD and the GNU tool-chain, within Mac OS X, has allowed them to benefit like many other companies from the availability of free and high quality code. Apple have also created things like WebKit, using existing open source code from KHTML, to create an open source alternative browser engine, which in turn has allowed Google to create the Chrome and Chromium browsers, providing increased competition in the open source web browser marketplace. Apple do not pretend to be an "open source company", but instead behave as a corporation with access to open source and the ability to contribute to open source when it suits them. Consider, for example, the CUPS printer subsystem found in many Linux distributions. CUPS originated back in 1997 and became a popular way of handling the complexity of managing printing, so much so that in 2002 Apple adopted it as their printing system and in 2007 gave the project solid backing by hiring the chief developer and purchasing, but leaving as open source, the source code for CUPS.

So, although Apple have made design, policy and commercial decisions that people in the free and open source software community vigorously object to, they have provided a number of things too: a real competitive bar to replace the complacent Microsoft competition and a disruption to the mobile phone market which has indirectly led to Linux based phones moving from oddities to centre stage. It is said that a rising tide raises all ships, and Apple have, in the last ten years created competition that is making all the players in the business rise to the challenge of competing. Open source and free software are rising to that competitive challenge and if that means users of free software and open source software get as good an experience using it as Apple's well polished offerings, isn't that something to be thankful for?

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