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A victimless crime?

by Remy Martin (remymartin@mac.com), May 16, 2001

In a recent ZDNet article, Evan Leibovitch describes the ways in which Apple is only interested in open source as a way to get a lot from the community without having to give anything back in return. Mr. Leibovitch openly states that the attitude, “Apple has embraced open source software,” is a lie. It’s not just a lie, but a “Big Lie,” or, “an assertion that is utterly obvious in its falsehood but that somehow encourages hope through frequent repetition.”

The folks here at MacEdition will be the first to tell you that Apple has a long way to go in building healthy relationships with their customers, dealers and press. Apple’s lawyers are never afraid to go after a Web site that may “damage the brand.” The MacThemes project received an order to cease their efforts on making a theme creator. Apple stealthily removed support for certain types of RAM in recent firmware updates. The Aqua interface stirs up so much debate it’s almost dangerous to mention. Nobody should step up to defend Apple for any of its policies or actions for the sake of doing so, but with all of the false assertions in Mr. Leibovitch’s article, it becomes necessary to say something about Apple and how they are handling open source.

The most irritating part of the ZDnet article is that Apple is doing nothing illegal with the code they are using. Mr. Leibovitch is trying to make Apple look bad for not using the GPL:

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. And that appears to be exactly what Apple has done.

The first part of the statement is accurate enough. Because Apple often uses code with a BSD-style license, they are allowed to make extensions of that code and profit from it. However, that is the nature of the license, not of Apple. People who release code under the BSD license are well aware of what may happen to their code, as the article states. Apple, or any other company that uses BSD-licensed software, is not using its size or money to trick people into letting it use their code. Mr. Leibovitch makes it sound as if the GPL license is such a clear cut choice for licensing that Apple should be punished for crimes detrimental to the community. The fact of the matter is, there are a wide range of opinions on the subject of GPL versus BSD licenses. A good place for background info, albeit from the BSD side of the debate, is available at Daemonnews.org.

The last part of the statement is patently false. Apple has given a lot back to the open source community. Before Mac OS X and Rhapsody and the purchase of NeXT, Apple sponsored the development of MkLinux, a version of Linux that runs on the Mach microkernel. MkLinux was never a commercial product, but Apple was instrumental in the development in the product. When it became clear that Apple wasn’t going to move forward with MkLinux, the company allowed the community to take over development. Despite not having any commercial interest in this product, Apple continued to offer mirrors of the distribution for a time and continues to sponsor MkLinux mailing lists on its site.

Apple has done a lot for the community since it decided that Mach + BSD was the answer for the UNIX core of Mac OS X. Ask leaders of the BSD community and they will tell you that Apple has been a good citizen. Apple has donated hardware to various projects developing BSD. They have done a lot of work with the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) and Objective-C and Darwin GCCs will be available through the Free Software Foundation. They do submit changes back to the Concurrent Versions System (CVS) tree.

Apple sponsors BSD community projects like OpenPackages. Apple has given jobs to UNIX programmers and made one of the original creators of the Mach kernel, Avie Tevanian, a vice president of the company, which to me is quite a vote of confidence. They prominently thank their contributors as well.

Apple has made OpenPlay, a “network abstraction layer designed to simplify the task of creating programs which communicate across multiple computers,” and NetSprockets available as open source and HeaderDoc, “a tool for generating HTML reference documentation from comments in C or C++ header files,” as well. They also released a little something called Darwin, which is the core foundation of Mac OS X and available for free from Apple’s Web site; there is even an x86 version for people who like to mess around. Clearly Apple is not using the community as “...a source of cheap high-quality systems software that it could make its own without needing to give back so much as a bug fix, let alone useful software projects.” Maybe it’s only GPL software that is useful?

On top of all this, Apple has also just had its open-source licence endorsed by the Open Source Initiative [nb. don’t confuse the OSI’s URL with www.osi.org – Ontario Swine Improvement Inc. —Ed.]. This news has been greeted with mixed reactions around the Web and once again reignited the contentious issue of open-source versus “free” software.

Apple has also recently hired Lane Roathe (originally from Id Software) to work on cross-platform NetSprockets with the Darwin team. Hopefully, all of this is good enough to count as giving back something of substance.

A large portion of the article goes on to talk about Apple’s lack of support regarding TrueType and QuickTime for Linux. I can’t say much about TrueType licensing and Apple’s involvement. Indeed, I am even sympathetic to the FreeType cause if Apple is indeed holding out on them when it comes to discussing certain patents relating to TrueType (although a Google search for “TrueType patents” does come up with some interesting results). QuickTime is an entirely different story.

I do understand that it is frustrating that Apple keeps Sorenson heavily guarded (either through an exclusive license or whatever other means), but Mr. Leibovitch should not be complaining to Apple – in the end, it is Sorenson’s decision on how it wants to license its codec. Mr. Leibovitch and others in the Linux community would be much better served if they pushed for those providing content on the Internet with the Sorenson codec to use another one. The same can be said for any audio codec that hasn’t been developed for Linux as well. An even better idea would be to take the Darwin Streaming Server Apple provides free of charge, develop an open-source codec (maybe something based on MPEG4) and help out with the other attempts to get QuickTime player support for UNIX systems.

Chris Coleman of the O’Reilly Network goes as far to say that ZDNet is spreading FUD against Apple. As he states:

While, it would be nice if Apple went even further and open sourced some of their other components, we can’t require it of them just because we want it. The accusations that Apple isn’t giving back seems unfair in light of the agreement they signed and just designed scare people into using the GPL, a license that forces its creator to make compromises in order to make the software ‘free.’

Mr. Leibovitch speculates that Apple won’t port KDE and GNOME libraries because they don’t like the GPL. I can assure him that Apple won’t port KDE or GNOME, but it’s not necessarily because it doesn’t like the GPL – it’s because Apple is working on its own GUI project that some argue is the biggest reason for buying its OS.

Apple could surely do more, and we would love it to do more (or perhaps much less when we are talking about its lawyers). I do believe, however, that Apple is doing its part to bring the entire BSD community forward and that its early work with open-source software and Darwin will lead to more projects that are of benefit to all.

Remy Martin is a university student finishing his last undergraduate year and a QTSS enthusiast and OS X “early adopter”. Feel free to e-mail him with any questions or comments at remymartin@mac.com.

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