This overview of Mac applications could keep even the most dedicated software enthusiast busy for days. Some of them are proprietary, such as iTunes; others are pure open source. So how does Apple's software, and that of other proprietary companies such as Adobe, compare to their open source counterparts? Matthew Russell gets the conversation rolling with this extensive collection, and even assigns grades for overall categories. We know there are great apps that aren't on this list and hope that you will add the ones (in the Comments section) that you think are important. Try to include URLs if possible. So with no further delay, let's get going.
Recently on the O'Reilly Radar, it was noted that several well-known Mac folks are switching to Ubuntu Linux. One of them, Mark Pilgrim, directly juxtaposed several of Apple's stock apps to open source software (OSS) alternatives on his blog, and this got me pondering how well Apple's stock apps really stand up to some of the alternatives out there--especially from the OSS community. For that matter, how many high quality OSS alternatives are there for Mac users?
It turns out that OSS is doing amazingly well for the most part. As might be expected, there are still some gaping holes to be filled, but in many others, Apple would do well to start taking notes. I'm going to take a brief look at the landscape for some of the most common stock apps and assign each of those application categories some health grades. The more high-quality alternatives to Apple's stock apps there are, the higher we'll grade the category's health, and vice versa.
The web browser arena seems to be the most natural starting point for our survey, but it's also bound to be the greatest source of contention because everyone has favorites. Fortunately, we're not here to do an exhaustive comparison of all the different web browsers out there and pick a winner. Rather, we're here to grade the overall health of the competition against Safari. It's probably no surprise to you that the competition is tough, and that means lots of great options are available.
There really are myriad choices out there, but you've no doubt already encountered the big three: Safari, Firefox (version 2 is on the way), and Camino. This doesn't look as though it will change any time soon, although various splinter groups favoring Shiira, OmniWeb, and Opera, really do seem to have strong allegiances. Notably, virtually all of the browsers available use OSS rendering engines: Firefox and Camino use Mozilla's Gecko; Safari, OmniWeb, Shiira, and many others are based on WebKit, one of Apple's open source projects, which began as a branch of a KDE's KHTML library.
There are so many alternatives to Safari (most of which are OSS) that it seems almost impossible not to be happy surfing the web on a Mac. That makes this category an easy one. Furthermore, the immense variety seems to be keeping Apple on their toes innovation-wise, so the overall health grade here is very high. (If you're one of the few unhappy surfers, why not start with this article and use WebKit to build your own browser?--and talk back at the end of this article.)
Overall health grade: A
OSS health grade: A
The variety of mail clients isn't quite as diverse as that of web browsers; standalone calendars are even harder to come by. Still, the consumer has a great deal of choice. The top dogs in this category include Mail, Thunderbird, Entourage, and Eudora. Giles Turnbull, a well-known connoisseur of mail clients, writes about a few of the most common annoyances he experiences with each of these here.
Unfortunately, the only OSS mail client of the big four mentioned above is Thunderbird, and the forums indicate that it's fairly hit-or-miss in terms of popularity. Fortunately, Thunderbird's openness empowers developers to work out its quirks on their own timelines, and there's something to be said for that. The only other blatant OSS alternative to Apple's Mail that appeared in my Google scour was GNUMail. It's designed to be a clone of Mail and appears to be chugging along at the leisurely pace to be expected of an open source project that's slightly behind the power curve. Still, if a few more developers backed it, there could be some real potential there. Its lack of integration with Spotlight and Address Book seem to be two factors that are holding it back from more widespread use.
An up-and-coming OSS competitor to iCal is Mozilla's Sunbird; Lightning is an effort to tightly integrate Sunbird into Thunderbird. If you're into running your own web server, PHP iCalendar also looks like a great option. Note also that Novell has released a port of their Evolution mail client that comes with a calendar if you've had good experiences with it on Linux and want to try it on OS X.
With all of the hype about GMail and Google Calendar lately, it hardly seems fair to leave them out of this survey. Even though they're not conventional desktop applications, they look and feel pretty darn close to conventional apps, they're free and continue to be hacked creatively, and in several respects, they're directly competing with Apple's .Mac service.
Before Ajax-enabled applications really started to take off, it was a bit harder to imagine web apps being the wave of the future. Google sure has come a long way in showing us just how sophisticated they can be. Can you live in web apps alone?
There doesn't seem to be quite as much OSS competition with mail clients as with web browsers, but we're a long way from being locked into Apple's Mail. Hopefully, that competition will continue to fuel improvements all around. Since so many OSS alternatives seem to be on par with, or better than, Apple's Mail, this category's health seems high. The only thing really holding it back is that there aren't more direct competitors to Apple's iCal.
Overall health grade: B
OSS health grade: B-
This category, unlike the previous two, is a bit of a conglomerate because there's not really a "one size fits all" core app for playing multimedia on the Mac. Folks normally play their music in iTunes, their DVDs in DVD Player, and use QuickTime for a variety of other tasks along the way. Therefore, instead of trying to do a direct Apples-to-apples comparison, we'll do more of a bucket-to-bucket comparison. Keep in mind that DRM makes this category a little less flexible than it otherwise might be.
The two readily available OSS multimedia player alternatives appear to be VLC and MPlayer. They're both incredibly popular; play music, DVDs, and videos; support virtually every codec you can imagine; and are both actively developed. Accounts indicate that at one point VLC could even play your iTMS DRM'd audio. Unfortunately, this capability appeared largely to depend on the state of the hymn project, which seems to be more or less a cat-and-mouse game with Apple. (As of this writing, Apple is winning.)
Figure 1. VLC may not play your iTMS-protected audio, but it can do just about everything else.
Another application you may want to be aware of in the multimedia arena is MacTheRipper, which is based upon the open sourced libdvdread and libdvdcss libraries and allows you to extract and back up the DVDs you own. Speaking of ripping, if you don't like the way iTunes rips your CDs, you can always try a tool like cdparanoia from Fink.
It's worth noting that even though the actual QuickTime libraries are about as proprietary as anything can be, Apple has made available a very rich API that developers can leverage to do anything the QuickTime Player can do. Additionally, the QuickTime Player's AppleScript support gives you quite a bit of flexibility even though you don't have the source.
Amateur builds upon this foundational API and lauds itself as an "uncrippled QuickTime Player." Incidentally, this project was started by someone who was irritated to discover that upgrading to Tiger caused QuickTime Pro 6 functionality to fail. Amateur has a long way to go but appears to be a solid start that may mature in time.
If you don't own a lot of iTMS-purchased media, you have several great options for multimedia players and related paraphernalia. Still, we face a quirk in this category: owning a lot of DRM'd media really does narrow your options, and let's face it--that's what Apple wants. The more you use iTunes, the more likely you are to purchase items from iTMS and stay locked in to iTunes. Hopefully, the future will broaden the possibilities.
Assuming you aren't "locked in" to iTunes for your DRM'd media, you're probably pretty happy with your choices. If you have purchased a lot of media through iTMS, you must be incredibly content with iTunes or incredibly frustrated. Why not share your thoughts with a comment at the end of this article?
Overall health grade: A- (but maybe a D+ if you own a lot of iTMS DRM'd media)
OSS health grade: A- (ditto)
The pickings are slim in this category. In fact, the only OSS photo library managers to mention are Album Shaper and imgSeek. There are a handful of other OSS applications and scripts such as Gallery, iPhotoToGallery (depends on iPhoto), and zphoto that allow you to do things such as building web pages from your existing photo collections, but Album Shaper and imgSeek are really the only ones that approach iPhoto functionality.
Figure 2. imgSeek
Figure 3. Album Shaper (Click for full-size image).
imgSeek and Album Shaper are two Qt-based apps that provide an alternative to iTunes.
Because both of these apps depend on Trolltech's Qt toolkit rather than the more native Cocoa frameworks to run, they have a look and feel similar to that of something you may have installed via Fink or DarwinPorts. It looks like some folks are also considering getting digiKam running via Fink (keep your eyes peeled for that one; it looks pretty slick), so you might want to start getting used to these slightly clumsy interfaces (at least for a while).
Efficiently rendering and displaying lots of images at a time is a hard problem and provides at least one possible explanation for the dismal scene of open source photo library managers. Album Shaper and imgSeek, however, provide a solid starting point for further improvement and give us some level of choice if we really get tired of iPhoto. In fact, if you can get past the cosmetic issues, you might be pleased with either one of these apps. If you're willing to eventually shell out some moola to replace iPhoto, you may try downloading Adobe's Lightroom Beta (hurry, though). Of course, I'm sure you've also heard of Apple's Aperture--but going there doesn't get us much further from where we started.
Coming by a native Cocoa-based application to manage your photo library isn't so easy to do right now. In fact, this category almost seemed to put a gaping hole in our landscape after a first glance. Fortunately, however, the creativity of a few individuals has landed a couple of Qt-based apps we can give a whirl, and having some choice is better than no choice--even if it's not ideal. Because we're lacking a true OSS Cocoa photo library manager, this category's health has to take a hit.
Overall health grade: C+
OSS health grade: C
Adium probably takes the cake in the realm of iChat competitors. Although it doesn't do audio and video chat yet, these features are certainly in the works, and we can expect to see them sooner rather than later. From the looks of it, Mercury, a free but closed source app, could potentially become OSS at some point, which would add an additional client capable of video chat to the mix. Although not open source, the latest version of Yahoo Messenger touts seamless video chats.
A few features that come with Adium that give it an edge on iChat include tabs, the ability to view chat history, and a menu bar icon that you may find more useful than the normal window. Adium also weaves together all of your various instant-messaging clients into a single uniform interface. This feature alone can significantly streamline the clutter on your desktop.
Figure 4. Adium delivers tabs.
Figure 5. Adium history.
Adium ties together all of your various instant-messenger accounts, delivers tabs and chat history to your chatting experience, and provides you with a neat menu bar icon (not shown).
Other alternatives out in chat land include Skype, the well-known pioneer in VOIP, gaim (try Fink), and Fire among others. Or, if you're in the market for a slick open source IRC client, consider looking at Colloquy.
The health in this category seems pretty good overall, and from the looks of it, it'll continue to receive a few more boosts in the near future as more apps like Adium introduce video chat capabilities and other improvements. Like the web browser category, the innovation in this arena really seems too high, and this can only mean good things for consumers as Apple develops the next generation of apps for Leopard.
Overall health grade: B+
OSS health grade: B
Does anyone else out there consider TextEdit a core app? Despite very little press, it's pretty handy to have it in your toolbar for the basics. Incidentally, the source for it comes with Apple's developer tools, so it's OSS too! As you probably already know, there's simply no shortage of text editors out there. (Read here to build your own in only 15 minutes.)
Among the most noteworthy OSS apps out there for slicing and dicing text in its various forms are Vim, Emacs, AbiWord, TeXShop, and Smultron. Mac DevCenter's text.editors.addicts.txt provides a nice overview of these and several others. There's also an entire arena of paid applications that some users swear by; TextMate, SubEthaEdit, and BBEdit are some of the better known ones.
It almost goes without saying that the health in this department is excellent. Although we're bordering on office products in this category, we'll stay away from there since office products aren't included by Apple as stock apps. If, however, you are in need of some OSS office tools, you might start out by trying NeoOffice or OpenOffice.org. (You can read an overview of an older version of NeoOffice here.)
Overall health grade: A+
OSS health grade: A
But Apple doesn't package a graphic editor!? Well, what about that thing called Graphic Converter? It does come in handy on those rare occasions, but it also leaves quite a bit to be desired (at least the Carbon v4.8 that came with my G4 PowerBook does.) Fortunately, there are several good graphic editors and image manipulators out there. At the forefront is the Gimp, Seashore (based on the Gimp's technology), and Inkscape (which actually runs under X11 but is still very nice). You don't have to look too hard to find a plethora of "my high school Java graphic editor project" example applications if you want to try creating your own. Or, if you want to see something off the beaten path, have a look at JavE, an app that draws pictures using Ascii text that you can export.
Figure 6. Inkscape (Click for full-size image).
Figure 7. Seashore.
You might have heard of the Gimp, but what about Seashore and Inkscape?
If "free" won't do the job, I'm sure Adobe Photoshop, the de facto standard, will. It and other applications such as Fireworks continue to chug along.
Although OS X doesn't ship with what you might consider a true graphic editor, there are plenty of great OSS alternatives out there that you can download and check out right away. More times than not, these OSS apps will probably get the job done for you. Overall, it looks like the Gimp is the closest competitor we have to any of Adobe's products. Again, having at least one strong alternative has to be a good thing.
Overall health grade: A
OSS health grade: B
If you're developing Cocoa applications, Apple's Xcode is almost impossible to live without (doesn't seem like vendor lock-in is quite so bad for this category, does it?). For other types of application development, however, there are adequate alternatives. Eclipse aims to "provide a universal toolset for development" and given the multitude of different plugins, it really seems to be living up to that mantra. NetBeans, a well-known Java IDE, has a famed GUI creator, and of course, there's the usual Vim (with exuberant ctags) and Emacs crowd who pull out their Swiss army knives to get the job done.
All in all, Xcode and Eclipse (with all of its plugins) can take you a long way, but if you're looking for more specialized support, you may have to shell out a few bucks. Affrus is a Perl IDE and Komodo hails itself as "the killer IDE for dynamic languages." Of course, some would say that you don't need a fancy IDE for anything at all--especially dynamic languages such as Perl and Python. You be the judge.
This category is somewhat special because you can only get so far away from the hand that feeds you. If you're a Cocoa developer, that hand is, more likely than not, Apple's development software. Sure, Xcode has its own problems, but what would it really be like developing native Cocoa apps without it? (If you've done so, please share your experiences with a comment below.) Of course, the very nature of Java gives its developers high-quality, cross-platform apps that they can take with them. The availability of Java-based IDEs and old-school tools such as Vim and Emacs keep the health looking strong in this category.
Overall health grade: B+
OSS health grade: B
Figure 8. iTerm adds tabs and bookmarks to your terminal sessions (Click for full-size image).
There weren't any open source sticky-notes applications to be found, but there's a sample project of Stickies as a CoreData example that comes with the developer tools. There isn't much in the way of OSS Finder alternatives out there either, but some folks swear by (and pay for) Path Finder. Xfolders is a free file manager that supplements the Finder.
Would you grade categories differently? If so, how? What about assigning an overall health grade measuring how well the OSS competition stacks up against an out-of-the-box machine? Should Apple be doing more to push out higher-quality stock apps? What about bundling more OSS with their machines? What did I leave out that you would have included? Please, talk back below and tell us all about it.
Matthew Russell is a computer scientist from middle Tennessee; and serves Digital Reasoning Systems as the Director of Advanced Technology. Hacking and writing are two activities essential to his renaissance man regimen.
Return to the Mac DevCenter.
Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.