Open Source: Are Macs the Red-Headed Stepchild?

One benefit to open-source applications is they can run on any operating system you want. But getting open-source software developed for the Mac is -- depending on whom you ask -- slow as molasses or quick as lightning.

By Lisa Hoover
Tue, July 08, 2008

CIO — It's not uncommon to use more than one computer during the course of a week: a Mac at work, a PC at home and a laptop on the road. When people search for applications that will work across all platforms, many look for an open-source solution first, only to discover that apps that work on Windows are woefully underdeveloped for the Mac.

Or are they? The answer to that question depends on whom you talk to.

Some developers point to Apple as gumming up an otherwise well-oiled software development machine. Lars Ivar Igesund is the project leader of an open-source project that offers support for Mac OS X, but he says it hasn't been an easy road. Igesund says that because software developers use Linux and Windows far more than Mac operating systems, they're more inclined to develop for platforms with which they're already familiar.

For more on operating system choices, see The Big OS Questions: Windows, Linux or Mac?.

Furthermore, although most Macs today are x86-based, many Power PC-based machines still "cause subtle technical problems," he says, with open-source software. Finally, Igesund says, "The [Mac] developer tool chain (compiler, linker, etc.) generally [doesn't work well]—they're GCC [GNU Compiler Collection] and similar, but with different options making for subtle problems. In addition, they tend to break in some manner or other for each new OS X release."

However, not everyone agrees that Apple hinders the way open-source software is developed for the Mac.

Software developer Dirk Stoop creates commercial software for the Mac. He uses a variety of open-source technologies—something he says is the norm for software development these days—including Python, WebKit, PostgreSQL, SQLAlchemy, ElementTree, Sparkle, libsvn and AquaticPrime. Stoop doubts there is a single Mac application developed by a small independent software vendor (ISV) that doesn't leverage open source in some way. "Usage of open source in commercial projects inevitably leads to improvements in these technologies and a way to fund such improvements," he says.

Stoop sees Macintosh and open source in a healthy relationship, citing the combination of a thriving independent software community and Apple's embrace of open-source projects. According to Stoop, this leads to inclusion of key frameworks and services in Mac OS X, and good documentation for developers who want to leverage these components. "[It] makes using and contributing to open-source projects interesting and accessible to developers who otherwise wouldn't have cared."

Continue Reading

Our Commenting Policies