Open source, Microsoft, and Apple

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Open source, Microsoft and Apple. Three vastly different approaches to the future of software writing and distribution. And sometimes those approaches bump heads.

Miguel de Icaza and a couple of hundred volunteer programmers want "to rewrite the rules of the software business by creating and giving away word processors, spreadsheets, email readers and other programs that mimic the look and feel of Microsoft's signature products," according to the Washington Post .

Of course, that means taking on Microsoft. However, some independent observers think de Icaza has a shot, as does Microsoft, the Post posits. This despite the fact that Microsoft began a series of attacks against the free-software movement that supports projects such as de Icaza's. The threat, in the Big M's eyes: free software is becoming big business, being used by cost-conscious schools, businesses and government agencies.

"Funded by venture capitalists and public markets, upstarts such as de Icaza's Ximian Inc., as well as some of Microsoft's biggest rivals, are releasing free products into the public domain with increasing frequency," the Post article said. "Sun Microsystems recently bought a company that makes a suite of programs that compete with Microsoft Office and began giving the software away. And IBM pledged $1 billion to help research and develop the free Linux operating system, an alternative to Microsoft Windows ... Some experts say that Microsoft's dominance may erode further as developing nations embrace free software as the cheapest way to enter the digital age."

Of course, Microsoft's $25 billion-a-year business is based on the idea that software can be owned and sold and that the source code is proprietary. On the other hand, de Icaza and his compadres believe that everything should be "open source" a la Linux and the Apache Web server.

Free sounds good, but consumers have been slower to adopt free software. The Post said that much of the hesitance is due to the fact that open source software "still requires some technical expertise to use, and many home users prefer Microsoft's simpler approach."

Three years ago, de Icaza and his group came out with a program that gave Linux Windows-like menus and icons. Then they released a Word-ish word processor, Excel-like spreadsheet and Outlook-like e-mail app. Now de Icaza's group is working to duplicating a subset of Microsoft's .Net initiative.

Microsoft seems unsure on how to respond to all this, the Post says. Initially, they argued that open source software might spell the death of the industry. Then they modified their stance, saying that the company's main problem isn't with free software per se but more with an open-source licensing scheme that holds that if you use open-source code, you have to put your enhancements in the public domain and offer it to others with the same privileges that you got (in other words, free).

In July, Microsoft changed its stance again. At an open-source convention in San Diego, the company said it wasn't actually against the licensing model, but wanted to help people make informed choices. The company has also started to push a "shared source" program that lets select Microsoft partners to peek at, but not copy, their blueprints.

Meanwhile, Apple has sort of embraced the open source movement. The core of Mac OS X is dubbed Darwin, a "super modern" kernel that offers, among other things, protected memory, preemptive multitasking, a Mach microkernel, and lots of Unix power features. It is also a completely open source kernel.

"The Open Source movement is revolutionizing the way operating systems evolve, and Apple is leading the industry by becoming the first major OS provider to make it's core operating system available to Open Source developers," said Avie Tevanian, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, at the 1999 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference. "We look forward to working with the Open Source community to enhance the feature set, performance and quality of our Mac OS X products."

Apple has posted the underlying programming commands of Darwin on its Web site. If they agree to Apple's license agreement, developers can download the source code, change it and include it in their own products without paying royalties or license fees.

"We think the open source community is going to be incredibly excited about the technology we're putting into open source," Jobs said at the 1999 WWDC. "Licensees can make products out of it and ship them, they can make products out of it and ship them on other platforms, they can compete with you, they can make alternate versions. Basically, they can do anything they want. There are two camps of people in this. The first camp includes the folks like Microsoft and Sun with Solaris, and others who have closed operating systems who feel that they have too much at stake to put them into open source -- and maybe they're right."

However, developers must make their source-code modifications publicly available, and Apple can incorporate any changes into future versions of Mac OS X.

Not everyone is thrilled with Apple's open source stance. In a May 2 ZDNet opinion column, Linux advocate Evan Leibovitch said that, in the world of technology, Apple's assertion that it's embraced open source software is simply not true.

Leibovitch opined that Apple's only interest in open source "is what it can extract, both in technology and publicity." Despite appearances, Darwin's dependence on free software doesn't indicate that Apple has changed its self-serving attitude towards the community, he said.

"Because Apple is using technology licensed without restrictions, rather than under the GPL commonly found in Linux software, the company can use Mach code, exploit what the open source community has done, make proprietary modifications, and give back nothing of substance," Leibovitch wrote. "And that appears to be exactly what Apple has done."

Among his complaints are:

  • The main reason TrueType isn't supported as well under free operating systems as it should be is that developers fear they might run afoul of Apple's patents on TrueType.
  • Apple hurts the open source community by refusing to offer any open source support for its QuickTime streaming video format.
  • Leibovitch feels that Apple has always been a company of closed software and hardware. And he said, "no one outside the world of Mac advocates actually buys into the myth that exploiting Mach represents a change in Apple's closed corporate attitude."

    Apple, of course, would beg to differ. On its Darwin FAQ page, the company said they're opening up its source because they believe the open source model is the most effective form of development for certain types of software. "By pooling expertise with the open source development community, we expect to improve the quality, performance and feature set of our software," Apple said. The company also stated that they "realize many developers enjoy working with open source software, and we want to provide them the opportunity to use that kind of environment while delivering solutions for Apple customers."

    This story, "Open source, Microsoft, and Apple" was originally published by PCWorld.

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