Darwin (Mac OS X Open Source)

    August 3, 2005

I have a handful of Boston clients, so around once a month or so, I take the commuter rail train into Back Bay or South Station.

It’s usually much more pleasant than fighting traffic and trying to find a place to park.

Strangely, the last four or five times I’ve taken the train, I’ve happened to sit next to someone using A Mac. That’s strange because the percentage of Macs sold would seem to make that statistically unlikely, so I wonder whether demographics would show a higher concentration of Mac use in certain areas. Maybe professionals (who are more apt to be riding the train from the ‘burbs) buy more Macs than blue collar folks? Maybe the East and West coasts are Mac friendly and the heartland prefers PC’s? Maybe it’s even that Red/Blue dichotomy: liberal, artsy types vote Democratic and buy Macs? I don’t know.. I only know that I’ve seen more Macs than I should. I also saw more Macs than I expected to see while walking around LinuxWorld earlier this year.

Mac should be a popular platform for the geeky crowd. It’s BSD based, and Apple releases source code through http://www.opendarwin.org/. What’s not to like? Gorgeous interface, run BSD ports with ease, compile almost all Linux software without problems, even run X if you want. There’s the perception that Macs are too expensive, but considering all that you get, I don’t think they really are. Sure, you might be paying a slight premium, but unless you are the type that buys the cheapest parts and self-assembles, so what? And you get a LOT of nice software bundled in. OK, OK, it’s not ALL open source, so if that gets you all riled up, I can understand you not wanting those apps.

But there seems to be more to it than that. Some folks over on the Linux side of things seem to have great animosity toward Mac, and disparage it quite cuttingly? Why is that? Is there some insecurity there, or are they just ignorant of what Mac OS X is? In some ways, Mac OS X is similar to Red Hat: they are offering their version of an OS that you can get source for. In Apple’s case, they are also bundling in some apps to sweeten the deal and of course are providing specific hardware to run it on. That’s something that some people see as a weakness, but I see as strength: Windows and Linux both have to deal with a terrible mess of drivers for a multitude of hardware. Microsoft of course gets more information from the hardware vendors more easily, but they still have to deal with the problems that can arise when you mix all this stuff together.

Apple, on the other hand, gets to pick their hardware carefully. Their OS doesn’t have to handle any old piece of junk that comes along. That’s a model that a Linux vendor could follow if it wanted too: build a specific piece of hardware and tailor the OS to it. Sure, other people could compete, but if your engineering savvy is better, you’ll succeed even though they could reverse engineer and duplicate everything you do.

That’s all Apple is really doing. I don’t see any rational reason for the rancor expressed by some of the open source community.

See Point, Counterpoint: Mac OS X Is Great for Fortysomething Unix Hackers also.

A.P. Lawrence provides SCO Unix and Linux consulting services http://www.pcunix.com