Looking at Mac OS X from the open source point of view is salty and sweet all at the same time. Let's face it, Apple has never been very free with its technology. And even with the "public source" release of Darwin, I doubt if we'll ever see Steve Jobs swilling carrot juice with Richard Stallman (of the Free Software Foundation) as they discuss how to slice up the rest of Apple and serve it to the people.
But that doesn't mean that Apple isn't willing to share other technologies that are embedded in its own software. As we look at Mac OS X in general, and Darwin in particular, I think we begin to see a trend. So much of Mac OS X is based on open source technology, like BSD for example, that Apple may finally have found the magic formula of open and proprietary ingredients to broaden its following of cutting-edge developers.
But a public source Darwin alone isn't going to propel the Mac platform into the future. What else does Apple have going for it to appeal to a broader audience? To answer that question, I have to digress away from Mac OS X for a moment and discuss hardware.
Think back for a moment. Apple was the first commercial hardware company to introduce the modern floppy drive, and the first to get rid of it. Apple's laser printer, along with Aldus PageMaker, enabled the desktop publishing revolution. USB was a languishing technology until Steve Jobs plugged it into the iMac. Wireless networking was introduced to most of us via Airport. And a single FireWire cable replaces the tangled mess of wires that had been tripping digital movie makers left and right. And I'm just warming up.
At last year's Open Source Convention in Monterey, CA, I saw as many PowerBooks as I've ever seen at any Apple event. Many people who love computers, and the magic that they contain, love Apple hardware -- and for good reason: Apple hardware is beautiful inside and out.
The obstacle to the full embrace of Apple hardware has been the antiquated operating system. Honestly, I think Apple has been held hostage by its customers for far too long. Customers who insisted that the OS be backwards compatible to aging Macs with weak processors. Customers who on one hand said that "we want you to stay ahead of Windows," and on the other were unwilling to let Apple abandon the crumbling foundation of its OS in order to do so.
Much in the same way that Steve Jobs had to pluck floppy drives from our desktops and toss them on the scrap heap, he's now having to yank the "pretty on the outside, but moldy on the inside" OS and replace it with, of all things, a Unix-based operating system. It's about time.
Mac OS X is interesting to many in the developer community because for the first time ever, Apple software will reflect the same virtues as its hardware: Sexy on the outside, gutsy deep inside.
This is an OS based on BSD, and it includes true multithreading, protected memory, and dual processor capability. Forget about wimpy add-ons such as the "personal web server"; Mac OS X ships with a built-in Apache server. This is serious software that can work with many of the cutting-edge tools that web developers are using today.
O'Reilly Open Source Editor Chris Coleman is interested in Mac OS X for precisely this reason.
"I have heard that Apache was engineered for the BSD OS and is used by Apache developers," said Chris. "Netcraft supports these claims and shows that Apache.org is powered entirely by BSD. Given that Mac OS X is powered by Darwin/BSD, Apache should run really well on it."
Chris spends much of his time working with authors who contribute to O'Reilly Network's BSD DevCenter, a frequent watering hole for open source developers. He feels that Mac OS X will accomplish what BSD users have been aching for:
"Mac OS X has the BSD community excited because it will put BSD on the desktop, a place Linux has coveted for a long time," he said.
But the open source interest goes beyond the BSD and Apache camps. We're going to see an explosion of developments from many other areas including PHP, Perl, and Python just to name a few.
O'Reilly Developer Rael Dornfest recently published the article WebDAV on OS X, where he described how administrators can edit documents on remote web servers using WebDAV, which is built right in to Mac OS X.
Rael writes in his article:
"Mac OS X has support for WebDAV built right into the operating system and integrated seamlessly into the desktop environment. Simply point to a server, log in, and bingo!, you've got a new virtual drive right on your desktop. It's even accessible at the Darwin *nix command prompt as just another directory."
During the coming months, we're going to see the results of open source ingenuity applied to Macintosh technology. And this is why more developers are starting to pay attention to Mac OS X, and that's why the O'Reilly Network has launched the Mac DevCenter to provide one-stop browsing for developers interested in this new technology.
The "O'Reilly advantage" is that we're already plugged into the other open source technologies that will elevate Mac OS X. For example, if you're reading an article about Mac OS X's BSD core, you have the link right there to take you to our BSD DevCenter for more information.
So in the end, how will the open source community respond to Apple's proprietary track record and tendencies? Much of that depends on Apple. They have taken a step in the right direction with Darwin and the Darwin Streaming Server software that has been released under the Apple Public Source License. Apple has published lots of information about these projects on their Open Source Projects at Apple web page.
As a result, not only is Apple on the verge of a new technology era with Mac OS X, they have the opportunity to attract an audience who believes that the next generation of computing depends as much on how software is created and distributed as on how it is used. Ironically, this revolutionary thinking reminds me of a 1980s Apple vision of how hardware should be made available to the masses.
Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.
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