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A Survey of Open Source Apps Available for Mac OS X

by John Littler
Your Life in Web Apps

History: Apple's Efforts to Befriend OS World

In the pre-OS X days, there was nothing to be said about Open Source on a Mac. There were quite a few shareware apps, but that was it. And there was very little in the way of shared information other than exchanges on newsgroups.

Open Source Apple

Times have changed. Since the introduction of Mac OS X, there has been a steady trickle of ports from Open Source projects. Today, there are both package management systems and standalone apps.

The main reasons for this shift are the open source-based FreeBSD 5 and Mach 3 microkernel, the UNIX environment, and the free spread of tools--including compilers--from Apple's Developer Connection and on the DVDs accompanying new Macs.

Mac OS X isn't completely open, however. Areas such as Aqua, the GUI code, and the CoreAudio and CoreVideo libraries remain proprietary.

The main way through which Apple invites open source developers to participate is OpenDarwin, which Apple describes as follows:, jointly founded in April 2002 by Internet Systems Consortium and Apple Computer, provides development resources for open source development of Mac OS X and related products.

The mission of the OpenDarwin project is to improve Mac OS X by creating a community of developers who work with and on the Mac OS X operating system. We provide hosting and a development community for open source products built on and for Mac OS X.

A couple of years prior to OpenDarwin, Dr. Michael Love founded GNU-Darwin. Its objective was to bring free software to Apple users. This was a full-fledged distribution; until very recently, GNU-Darwin was the only way to run Darwin on X86 platforms. It doesn't, as you'd expect, link to any of Apple's proprietary libraries.

Open Source Package Systems of Today

Although there are quite a few standalone applications that can be downloaded in .dmg form, which we'll discuss shortly, there are also packaging systems that are useful for getting lots of smaller packages. To use one of these systems, you must download an installer first and then choose your packages.

Fink: Fink was the first widely recognized system. Its website offers the following description:

The Fink project wants to bring the full world of Unix Open Source software to Darwin and Mac OS X. We modify Unix software so that it compiles and runs on Mac OS X ("port" it) and make it available for download as a coherent distribution. Fink uses Debian tools like dpkg and apt-get to provide powerful binary package management. You can choose whether you want to download precompiled binary packages or build everything from source.

Fink lists 6405 packages, which you can browse here.

OpenDarwin's DarwinPorts: At the time of this writing, DarwinPorts has 3252 "completed and usable" ports. This page allows you to search what packages are available. Here is a brief excerpt from the audio section:

Package Description Maintainer Categories Platforms Dependencies
audiofile 0.2.6 Library for dealing with SGI audio files. toby at audio darwin
audioslicer 1.0.3 MP3 file splitter. toby at aqua audio darwin
bladeenc 0.94.2 Blade's MP3 Encoder (BladeEnc), a freeware MP3 encoder. darwinports at audio darwin freebsd
ccaudio 1.1.1 Library and software for manipulating audio data. blb at audio darwin commoncpp2
cd-discid 0.9 Read CD and get CDDB disc ID information. jrdittmann at audio darwin
cdparanoia 0.9.8 An audio extraction tool for sampling CDs. jrdittmann at audio darwin
csound 4.23f13gbs.0 A language used to describe sound synthesizers. yves at audio darwin fltk

If you're interested in audio, you'll find some quite interesting packages here.

GNU-Darwin: Gnu-Darwin can run by itself and from a bootable CD, as well as on top of Mac OS 10.3 and 10.4. You can browse their PPC packages here. I'm not sure of the numbers, but my impression is that they're somewhere between Fink and OpenDarwin.

Which system is most useful for you depends on your special interests, although Fink appears to win on a pure numbers basis. If you think proprietary libraries are evil, then your only choice is GNU-Darwin.

Your Life in Web Apps

Essential Reading

Your Life in Web Apps
By Giles Turnbull

Have you dreamed of a simpler life where web apps and a browser meet all of your computing needs? All you need is a network connection. In this PDF Giles Turnbull introduces you to a day of web apps-only, then he surveys the best and most innovative web apps from the current crop available right now. He also addresses practicality, security issues, and backup strategies for living the web app life. Is it really possible? This PDF will help you decide.

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