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Jun 99 Online

Volume Number: 15 (1999)
Issue Number: 6
Column Tag: MacTech Online

Sep 98 Viewpoint

by Jeff Clites,

Apple surprised everyone when they announced the Darwin project, exposing the core of their new operating systems for all to see and hack. It is a bold strategy, to try to latch onto some of the momentum that is the Linux phenomenon. From where I sit, I see three possible outcomes: Darwin could form a bridge to lure programmers from the open-source community into the Mac fold; it could introduce traditional Mac programmers to the larger, traditionally Unix-based open-source arena (same bridge, opposite direction of travel); or it could flop. It's too soon to tell which scenario will play out. Up until now, the Mac community has not been heavily involved in open-source projects, with a few notable exceptions. (In fact, the only similar Mac-based community project that I know of is FilterTop, and most people probably have never even heard of it.) I suspect that this is more a logistical mismatch stemming from underlying design issues than a fundamental reflection of the cultures involved. Most open-source projects have originated in the Unix world, and Unix applications tend to either lack a GUI, being command-line and text-configuration-file based, or they have a UI based on X Windows. In either case it would take a considerable amount of work to make such applications truly Mac-like, and new versions of the core application would have to be re-ported with each release. The open-source projects which have successfully been brought to the Mac have all surmounted these potential problems in some way: Linux runs on PowerPC hardware, but since it is an entire operating system it isn't subjects to the expectation of a Mac-like design; Mozilla grew out of a product which was cross-platform before it was open-source, and its design reflects this; and Perl, Python, and Tcl, the major scripting languages, all have Macintosh versions, but as programming languages are inherently text-based there is not a fundamental design mismatch between platforms.

Now that Darwin has arrived and Apple's operating systems are BSD-compatible, Macintosh users are going to have an easier time participating in open development projects, or in simply using the software that these projects have already developed. Last month we explored resources to help Macintosh developers learn more about the Unix world in general. This month we are going to investigate the open-source phenomenon, with the hopes of helping Macintosh developers figure out where they fit in the larger scheme.


The Open-Source Movement

The open-source movement is definitely a movement, complete with its own interesting characters, terminology, and culture. The most influential piece of writing within this community is "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", written by Eric Raymond, one of the leaders of the movement and the man who started the Open Source Initiative which has actually trademarked the term "open source". You can read about the requirements that a software license must meet in order for it to qualify as open source, and the rationale behind them, at the Open Source Page. Another piece of required reading is Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution, a book recently made freely available in electronic form by its publisher, O'Reilly and Associates. Another site not to be missed is the home of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation, lead by the other most vocal figure of the open-source movement, Richard Stallman. This is also where you can read about the GNU Public License (GPL), probably the most common and most restrictive open-source license. Finally, you can read more about the history and economics of the open-source movement in the online version of Tim O'Reilly's article "The Open-Source Revolution", originally published in Esther Dyson's expensive Release 1.0 newsletter.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar
The Open Source Page
Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution
GNU's Not Unix! - the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation (FSF)
Release 1.0 - The Open-Source Revolution

When you are done with these, check out the other links available from the MacTech Online web pages at, and stay tuned for next month, when we'll investigate some open-source projects which could benefit from the involvement of the Macintosh community.


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