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An Open Source Primer

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 10
Column Tag: Programming

An Open Source Primer

A Practical Guide to Using Open Source Software (OSS) on Mac OS X for the Non-Developer

by Emmanuel Stein


Readers of Dean Shavit's "The Source Hound" and Ed Marczak's "Mac In The Shell", are no doubt familiar with open source software (OSS). With Darwin as OS X's core, many if not most of the Mac OS's most critical components are based on, if not entirely built upon, open source projects. To exploit the capabilities of OS X it is, therefore, critical to have a good grasp of OSS and the many ways you can leverage open source solutions on the Mac.

For Mac aficionados without a UNIX background, the world of open source can be rather daunting at first. Given all the distribution formats out there and the occasional need to compile software, it is not surprising that many Mac Users have not exploited OSS beyond what comes with OS X. Even non-developers who know how to compile their software, often run into issues with source code that requires special compiler options to successfully compile, or for which they may need to edit the Makefile and the like. Dependencies are also a source of problems and are often at the root of problems getting OSS to run properly. Finally, there is the issue of source code not ported to the Mac OS or Darwin, for which one requires a cross compiler. Source code not ported to the Mac OS regularly stumps many users who do not realize that source code is frequently machine dependant in nature and therefore may not work on all platforms.

There is hope, however. Package management systems like Fink and Open Darwin Ports (think Apple Software Update for OSS) offer automatic downloading, compilation and linking, as well as updating. Although these tools are wonderful and make acquiring and deploying OSS a breeze (even for GUI diehards), they do not always include every piece of OSS you may want or need. Also, newer projects may not even have packages available, much less be indexed by the extant package management systems. In such situations, many people may give up and possibly look for a "safe" commercial alternative. I hope to change that with this primer by going over the convenient package management tools available, and going over the simple steps for compilation. Further, I will show you how to identify and where to find OSS that has been ported to the Mac.

Though, it is beyond the scope of a primer to go into porting OSS to the Mac, I will nevertheless touch on the conceptual issues involved. If nothing else, it will enable readers to better understand why certain code does not compile on the Mac and for more adventurous readers, shows where to find the porting instructions in a source distribution.

If you are a developer or UNIX geek, you will likely be familiar with the subjects covered. However, for the rest of us, get ready to enter the wonderful world of OSS. Far from being a "developer-only" community, the rich and vibrant world of OSS is chock full of cutting edge and highly useful non-developer tools like GIMP (Graphic Image Manipulation Program) and Blender (an advanced 3D modeling tool). Moreover, with the advent of OS X and object oriented desktop environments like Gnome and KDE, the OSS universe has become increasingly accessible to GUI folks. With every passing day, open source developers are innovating and facilitating methods of OSS distribution. Whether via an Aqua wrapper to X11-based applications, like Aqua Ethereal, or via graphical front-ends to package management tools, such as Fink's Fink Commander and Open Darwin Port's Port Authority, OSS developers are clearly making every effort to reach the Mac audience.

What Exactly is Open Source Software Anyway?

Open source, is typically used to refer to non-proprietary software, distributed with source code and a "copyleft" style license, allowing anyone to add new features to, or improve the source code as they see fit. Open source is however, more than a way of distributing software. It is a way of life with a deeply evolved philosophy that is all about fun and exploration in an intellectual arena. Central to that philosophy is the notion of hacking and an evolved spirit of play that goes beyond concepts of work and survival, to paraphrase Eric S. Raymond, a prominent OSS advocate and one of the few to have successfully hacked the three major open source UNIX projects: LINUX, BSD, and GNU. There are also practical characteristics specific to OSS that go beyond the qualification of providing the source code in a software distribution. Specifically, to "officially" qualify as open source, software must meet a set of well-defined guidelines set forth in the several extant open source licensing schemes. These include the BSD artistic License, the X11 license, GPL and other "compatible" license formats (see Though these licensing schemes differ slightly they are united by a similar philosophy that is delineated by the Open Software Initiative's (OSI) Open Source Definition (OSD) v1.9, whose axioms are available at (

Conceptually, open source, also represents a new paradigm in software development. To use the terminology coined by Raymond, in his seminal treatise "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," OSS employs the Bazaar model of development while traditional, closed source software, represents the "Cathedral Model." Without going into the details of each development model and its respective benefits and weakness, I have outlined the characteristics of open source software below:

  • Releases are made as frequently as possible. There is usually a stable and an unstable release, the later with more features, but in need of testing.
  • Users of the software, whether developers or not, contribute to the development, documentation and distribution of the software. This participation is a key element in the growth and sustainability of the OSS movement and is a way of giving back. User participation varies from submitting bug reports to taking an active role in the development of a project.
  • The source is made available with the intent of enabling users to hack the source for educational and practical purposes.
  • Whenever possible it is best to avoid forking development (e.g. The split with Emacs and xemacs is a good example of this) and duplicating effort. The ultimate goal is to work together to extend existing projects and only introducing novel projects to fill a niche not already saturated.
  • Design the program, when possible, to be easily ported to as many other platforms as possible and embrace modularization of code for facilitated distribution of development work.


The vanilla install of OS X is packed with so much OSS the list is too long to reproduce here. However, so as not to rattle users who may be unfamiliar with these tools, Apple, being Apple cleverly hid them from view, much as they did the Terminal application. Even every-day applications like Safari are based on open source projects. In fact, without OSS there would be no Mac OS X!

The point is, with a standard install you can use all the OSS bundled with the Mac OS and many outside projects that are specifically packaged for the Mac. These include the OSS listed on Apple's OS X downloads page in the "UNIX & Open Source" section. However, if you want to use any OSS that requires, god forbid, compilation, or software which relies on the X11 windowing system, you have to go beyond the vanilla install.

The following is a list of the pre-requisites required for many if not most of the OSS mentioned in this primer. Installing this recommended software will enable you to get the most out of what is available in the open source community and ensure that you do not run into dependency issues.

  • If you haven't done so already, install Apple's X11 implementation. This is a custom option for the standard Mac install and can be found among the packages located on the install DVD for Tiger under the System>Library>Packages directory, for those of you who have already installed OS X and just need to add that package.
  • The Developer Tools CD contains a rich array of Apple modified OSS needed for compiling software, as well as, many of the dependencies upon which OSS projects rely. Although the standard install of Developer tools will be adequate for most needs, I recommend also installing the X11 SDK and the optional compiler packages.

Note: Once you have installed the developer tools, be sure to repair permissions, as they will be changed in the process of installation and, if not remedied, may adversely affect your system performance.

Open Source the Easy Way With Fink and Darwin Ports

Both Fink and Darwin Ports are amazing package management systems designed specifically to enable Mac users to benefit from the diverse range of OSS without having to manually compile or port source code. In addition to having easy to use command line interfaces, both Fink and Darwin Ports have mature GUIs that match virtually every available terminal option (Figures 1-4).

Figure 1. Darwin Ports' PortBase Graphical installer and Updater

Figure 2. Darwin Ports' PortView

Figure 3. FinkCommander GUI

These environments are ideal for both novice and experienced users, who simply want the equivalent of Apple's Software Update for their OSS. Frankly, I use both all the time on my work machine to get my OSS fix. Although I have been known to compile the occasional program, I have gotten so used to these wonderful utilities that I hardily ever have to compile these days. Each package manager offers access to a bewildering array of software, with Darwin Ports having 2,292 packages and Fink having 5,013 packages across 23 categories! What's more, via the GUI, you can choose to install the binary or source versions for maximum flexibility. Even if you only use Fink or Darwin Ports for one piece of OSS software, it is worth the download and install. Both detect dependencies for your desired package and automatically download and install the support files for you. This dependency checking feature alone has saved me countless hours hunting down library files and widget kits needed to run a simple OSS application. Finally the distribution options for these package managers is phenomenal, with .dmg all in-one installers familiar to any OS X user and the ability to obtain the source directly via cvs. Choose one or both, but Fink and Darwin Ports are must-have additions to any Mac user's OSS toolkit.

To Compile or Not To Compile...

Often OSS will come in a variety of package and binary formats. While many, given the choice, will instinctively go for the binary or packaged formats, there are certain benefits to compiling. These include, the ability to better monitor the installation, to effectuate custom configurations, or for reasons of security. Regarding the last point, it is rare that package maintainers are ever malicious and, provided you get your package or binary from a reputable source (e.g.,, are two popular examples), you risk little or nothing. Ditto, for users of package utilities like Fink and Open Darwin Ports. Users of these utilities can also compile from source.

Regardless of whether your preference is for pre-compiled and packaged binaries or source auto-compiled using Fink, there will come a day, mark my words, when you will need to compile a piece of OSS. It may be because the binaries were not updated for the latest OS update, or because there are no OS X packages out there and/or your package utility has not indexed the particular piece of OSS you need. While I know many people who would prefer to eat a bug than open the terminal and compile software, developers often make it very easy to compile their source code. Much of the time the following terminal command is all that is needed:

$ ./configure && make && make install

There are, nonetheless, instances in which this command will not suffice. We will discuss this further in the next few sections and offer reasons, as well as, tips for doing more advanced compiling. We will also cover what porting source to the Mac involves.

Where To Find Mac Friendly Source Code

Although, sites specifically geared towards OSS on the Mac exist, they are often limited to pre-made packages and can be lacking in terms of breadth and quantity of OSS software. In contrast, platform independent sites like and not only offer Mac-specific source and binaries, but also offer a rich and centralized repository for the latest and greatest in OSS. I have seen many advertisements for CD distributions of Mac compatible OSS binaries and source, but have always felt that these missed the whole point of OSS: To distribute up-to-date builds with frequent patching, that frankly only a medium like the Internet will allow.

What's in the Source?

With all this talk of source code, you might be wondering what it is and how it is distributed. Even though compilation is usually accomplished with a simple three-step command (e.g. configure && make && make install), knowing what to look for in a source distribution can go a long way to ensuring a successful build of your OSS.

Your typical source distribution comes packaged as a compressed tarball (e.g. mysourcecode.tar.gz). When expanded and untarred, the source distribution will likely contain several files including .c and .h files, which represent the source code and header files, with README, INSTALL, and sometimes PORT files. Although most source code is written in a version of the C programming language, hence the .c files, other distributions may be written in perl, python, and a host of other languages. As such, you may encounter distributions without .c and .h files. However, Perl and Python do not require compilation, as they are interpreter-based scripting languages and are thereby much easier to deploy.

For easy compilation, developers often supply a configure script that is generated with the autoconf OSS utility. Alternatively, you may find that your OSS distribution uses the xmkmf script to invoke the imake program, which, in turn, will construct the make files needed for compilation. When confronted with OSS based on imake, be sure to read the INSTALL file for details. However, in most cases the following command can be employed to generate necessary files for compilation:

$ xmkmf -a

The compilation may then be completed by issuing the following terminal command:

make && make test && make install

There will also be cases in which no configure script is supplied with the source. You may, nevertheless, generate one by executing the script. Please note that this applies only to source, which is based upon autoconf. Most commonly, you will run into this scenario when obtaining the source directly from a CVS (Control Versioning System) repository on the Net. As previously mentioned, you should then be able to run the configure command, followed by the make and make install commands. Though this is the typical manner in which compilation is effectuated, be sure to read the INSTALL file, as it should contain more precise install instructions. The PORT file, mentioned earlier offers suggestions for developers wishing to port the OSS to another UNIX platform, like OS X.

Figure 4. A view of a typical autoconf-based source distribution

What if the Source Code for The Software I want Isn't Mac Compatible?

Unless specifically designed to be platform independent, the source code has to have been ported to the Mac architecture in order to compile and run on OS X. Unfortunately, the Mac is not binary compatible with Linux, so even Linux packages ported to the PowerPC architecture are not usable. Mac OS X differs notably from Linux, SVR 4-based systems, and other Unix variants in its lack of support of the Executable and Linking Format (ELF). The binary format specific to OS X is Mach-O. This is why even PowerPC architecture specific source and binaries are a no go in OS X.

If the OSS you need is not available for OSX, consider using an emulator or configure a dual boot option with Yellow Dog Linux, for instance. Unless you are a developer and are willing to give up a significant amount of your free time to port the OSS, the options I mentioned are your only choice. On the plus side, however, is that with each passing day more and more OSS is being ported to OS X, which though not totally Open Source itself, has become one of the leading OSS platforms.

A Call To Arms

Although OSS is free, characterizing it as simply "free software" misses the essence of the OSS philosophy and the hacker ethic from which it originated. The open source movement, along with the Internet has enabled developers to adopt a radically different development model. This new model, termed the "Bazaar" by Raymond, has and continues to prove itself as a preferred model for software development and distribution and will continue to make inroads into virtually all areas of the technoverse. Built on a foundation of cooperation, group effort, and imbued with a spirit of play and intellectual curiosity, OSS represents a novel paradigm for the exchange of ideas and has the potential to fundamentally alter how we think of and use technology. Moreover, the detailed philosophies coming out of the open source movement offer a dramatic and compelling alternative to the traditional Protestant ethic, which values work for work's sake. The vision presented by the OSS movement is of a more evolved and egalitarian society, in which the joy of hacking transcends the Protestant work ethic. As part of the Mac community, it is our collective responsibility, to not only take from the rich array of OSS, but to give back as well. For developers the meaning here is very clear. However, non-developers are far from excluded and play a crucial role as software testers, technical writers, and distributors of OSS. I urge you all to take the plunge into the world of OSS. Together, we can take ownership of the technologies upon which we depend and really make a Jobsian "dent in the universe!"

Emmanuel Stein has been an avid Mac user since 1984 and has honed his cross-platform skills while working at France Telecom, Time Magazine and Reed-Elsevier. He has recently started his own Mac-centric consulting company, MacVerse, which offers implementation, system administration and development services geared towards the enterprise market. As a diehard GNU/Linux geek, he enjoys hacking open source software and experimenting with new open source projects on OS X. You may reach him at


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