Symbiotic: What Apple Does for Open Source
December 18th, 2007
Daniel Eran Dilger
It is popular among Windows Enthusiasts to dismiss Apple’s use of open source as both a self-serving crutch to offset the company’s imagined inability to write its own code–insisting that Mac OS X is really just FreeBSD with some extra graphics tacked on is a common meme among certain wags–and also a one-sided grab that takes more than it gives. In reality, Apple does a variety of things for the open source community that are often ignored. Here’s a closer look.
Code Softly and Carry a Big Stick.
Back in 1990, Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder John Gilmore wryly noted that “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” In a similar fashion, the distributed and portable nature of the open source community enables projects to mimic the self healing powers of the Internet to route around regional legal encumbrances and the barriers erected in monopolized markets.
No amount of wealth or political power can bankrupt, buy out, or shut down the entire community of free and open source software development. That hasn’t stopped Microsoft from trying however. After years of idle complaint that described Linux and open source in general as both a communist threat and a cancer, Microsoft’s executives dialed up their efforts this year with a warning that 235 of the company’s patents were infringed upon in open source projects.
By not revealing which of its patents it had readied into position as weapons against the community, Microsoft made it clear that the point of its claim wasn’t to stop any real infringement, but rather to spread panic among companies involved in open source development and discourage them with the fear that they could end up at the wrong end of a very expensive lawsuit brought by a company with deep pockets.
However, Microsoft can’t attack Apple or other significant patent holders with its broad and nebulous patent threats; the two companies–as all modern companies–file for new patents as fast as they can so that the threat of mutually assured destruction will keep any patent quibbles between major companies from sprouting.
Most open source-centric developers only have a smattering of patents, but companies that back open source, such as Apple, Google, and IBM, have huge portfolios of thousands of patents covering a broad range of technologies. That makes Apple an unassailable ally of open source development and lends corporate legitimacy to the very distributed projects Microsoft is working to undermine with its fear-based anti-marketing.
Among Microsoft’s infamous “235 Linux patents”, 45 actually relate to OpenOffice and 83 apply to FOSS applications not part of the Linux kernel or its commonly associated graphical interface code. Some of that code may likely be included in Mac OS X. If Microsoft attempted to shutdown SAMBA or projects pertaining to NTFS support for example, Apple could intercede to pursue peace with an influence and patent portfolio most FOSS developers lack.
The reason for Apple’s natural alignment behind open source isn’t due to a halo of righteousness, but because the company is contending as a minority player in several markets dominated by Microsoft and the proprietary technologies it has established as de facto standards. Apple’s position is identical to Linux, BSD, and other open source projects, giving it strong reasons to intercede on the behalf of victims of patent terrorism.
Apple’s Billion Dollar Patent Bluster
Microsoft’s Unwinnable War on Linux and Open Source
Strength In Numbers.
Apple’s complex relationship of cooperation and competition with GNU/Linux, BSD, and other branches of free and open source software benefits everyone involved. Apple stands on the shoulders of giants with infusions of new technology from a variety of sources, and also contributes back its own efforts, such as with WebKit improvements to KHTML and the entirely new and original open source Calendar Server implementation of CalDAV it now offeres under the Apache license.
Even more importantly, Apple’s growing clout in a number of directions–from consumer electronics hardware to music and media sales–is establishing support for open, interoperable standards that benefit every group threatened by patent encumbered standards established by monopolist fiat.
While MPEG standards involve patents just the same as proprietary codecs from On2, Real, and Microsoft, the ISO/MPEG’s member companies directly benefit from open implementations of their technology, and the cooperation among their patent holders means that it would be more difficult for one rogue company to directly attack a project or product in order to extort enough money to shut it down and keep the market monopolized.
In addition to arresting the growth of Windows Media, Real, and Flash/On2, Apple also earlier aligned against PC hardware DRM in Bill Gate’s plans for Palladium, also known as Next Generation Secure Computing Base. With Apple now the highest valued hardware maker and enjoying much faster growth than the rest of the industry, further efforts by Microsoft to push a PC architecture designed not to run Linux will be ineffectual.
The Enemy of My Enemy.
Of course, Apple’s interests don’t always align with every member of the open source community. However, the company’s consumer-oriented focus regularly matches its strategies and interests with the needs of users rather than corporate managers, studios and labels who might want to dial up the prices and restrict the use of consumer media, and other anti-consumer interests.
Apple more often serves to defend users’ rights simply because end users are Apple’s primary customers. Conversely, Microsoft has regularly courted the favor of DRM-dazzled studios and promoted Trusted Computing due to fact that it primarily sells to corporations, not directly to consumers. Only 20% of its Windows revenues come from retail sales, despite the fact that retail boxes typically cost ten times as much as the OEM licenses sold to hardware makers. Consumers also don’t directly pay for Windows Media licensing.
Apple makes its money selling iPods and Macs; it seeks to keep media prices low to spur demand and volume sales, and works to balance the DRM protections demanded by studios and labels with the fair use rights of consumers. Nobody has done more to temper the rhetoric for unbreakable DRM than Apple. Incidentally, that’s also why the studios love Windows Media DRM and fear iTunes, while consumers’ spending habits reveal an opposite outlook on the subject.
Opening Apple Works.
There’s more for Apple to do. For example, its support for Open Document is still in its infancy in Leopard, iWork, and the iPhone. Within just months of its release, iWork 08 established a 15% share of the Mac market; that kind of competition could be leveraged to push Microsoft toward joining it in natively supporting Open Document in Office, perhaps initially on the Mac.
Microsoft is currently trying to push its own openly published but proprietary format, OOXML, which is licensed and delivered to disallow truly open implementations. Apple supported OOXML in iWork 08 and voiced support for it as an emerging standard. That’s likely because Open Document currently has such a trivial share of the existing market that fighting against OOXML would seem to be a self-defeating effort.
While the outlook for Open Document isn’t yet stellar, it is making progress as a recommended choice among various governments worldwide. Apple’s contribution toward pushing other open formats, including AAC and MPEG-4 H.264 in iTunes, QuickTime, and the iPod suggest the potential for Apple to also advance other open formats that favor interoperability. That plays directly into Apple’s own interests in advancing its desktop software sales in the face of the monopoly position of Office and its closed and frequently even internally incompatible formats.
Order from Chaos.
Among free and open source developers, there is sometimes too much competition. Projects can branch and fork or may be abandoned for various reasons, sometimes more closely related to political reasons than being based on technical merits. Apple’s size and clout not only helps to shield FOSS from external corporate threats, but also helps select winners and give them the promotion needed to make them succeed.
For example, when Apple entered the web browser market, it based Safari not on Mozilla’s Gecko engine, but upon the lighter, faster code developed for KDE. That gave KHTML a stature that it would never have received in the shadow of Mozilla as an independent open source project. It has also rapidly resulted in making KDE’s code the basis of best mobile browser, used both by Apple and its cooperative competitor Nokia.
When the WC3 standards body got a wild hair to officially suggest Ogg Theora as the baseline video codec for HTML5, Apple also helped reign in on the political silliness by opposing the move. The HTML5 specification doesn’t need to cite codec recommendations, and Ogg Theora is neither the only nor the best open container and codec to choose from anyway.
In addition to its role in defending, selecting, and promoting open source efforts and lending leadership in community efforts as an involved corporate citizen, Apple also empowers open source by putting it to work and actually using it in volume production. That’s the best thing that can happen to any software.
Apple employs open source code in the BSD layer of Mac OS X, where libraries of utilities from BSD and GNU fill out the abilities of Mac OS X’s core OS. This open architecture makes it easy for Mac users to compile and install POSIX code that was originally written for other Unix-like systems, from Sun Solaris to Linux to BSD. Mac OS X has by far the largest installed desktop user base of any Unix-like system.
Apple is maintaining an openly interoperable relationship with open source and commercial Unix by using the same LP64 data model used by Solaris, Linux, and SGI IRIX to deliver 64-bit applications. This makes it easier to port high end scientific and graphics code to Leopard and defends the position of Unix as strong competitor to Windows in those valuable markets. Microsoft implemented its own LLP64 data model for 64-bit apps.
Cocoa Covered Code.
For applications that need a graphical interface, it’s straightforward to develop a native Cocoa interface that relies on existing POSIX code for its internal engine. For example, applications like HandBrake have a friendly native Cocoa face but internally are based on shared libraries such as FFmpeg and x264.
This modular architecture allows third party developers to rapidly keep up to date with open source developments that occur elsewhere while also delivering a highly customized, Mac-savvy interface.
In the previous article, “How Microsoft’s Copy-Killing Has Reached a Dead End” I described how knowledgeable observers are suggesting Apple might do the same thing with code modules and plugins delivered as Windows DLLs. There are two other markets Apple is working to expand into that involve similar concepts, as the next article will examine.
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