Tomorrow's War: Why FOSS Needs to Change its Views of Apple

Tuesday Sep 2nd 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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Open source software advocates have long railed against Microsoft while largely ignoring proprietary vendor Apple. That’s a profound mistake.

By definition, free and open source software (FOSS) is opposed to proprietary companies. But, as Jim Zemlin and Stephen J. Vaughan-Nichols have pointed out recently, the FOSS community does not regard all proprietary companies with equal disdain. Specifically, while fear and loathing of Microsoft often reaches towering, even paranoid heights, Apple is hardly ever condemned, and even seems to be regarded with approval by many members of the FOSS community. Yet, in some ways, Apple poses a greater proprietary threat than Microsoft.

To say the least, this state of affairs is odd. Although Microsoft is suspected of using FreeBSD code for its own proprietary purposes, we know that Apple's OS X operating system definitely has done so -- and the fact that the borrowing is legal in both cases shouldn't mitigate the violation of the community's ethos of sharing. Moreover, as John Sullivan, operations manager for the Free Software Foundation, points out, the cryptographically signed software installation on the iPhone is a form of digital rights management that prevents the modification or sharing of apps that are part of the basic definition of FOSS.

Yet, so far, the Free Software Foundation is ahead of the rest of the community in its attitudes toward Apple. Fashion, outdated thinking, the open source emphasis on quality, and an over-focus on Microsoft as the enemy all combine to make the FOSS community dangerously blind to how Apple operates.

The Allure of Fashion

From the earliest days of personal computing, Apple has always had fashion on its side. Where Microsoft caters to business, Apple courts the artistic and the trendy. Where Microsoft has solid business leaders, Apple has a guru and visionary. Where Windows runs mostly on utilitarian-looking hardware that wouldn't be out of place in Nineteen Eighty-Four (recent efforts from Hewlett-Packard and Dell being exceptions still rather than the rule), Apple hardware is a model of industrial design that rivals the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost or the Braun line of coffee makers.

Some of this reputation is deserved, and other parts of it are exaggerated or outdated, but Apple continues to play on it, as the Mac vs. PC ads show. How else could a company parlay a music player like the iPod or a mobile device like the iPhone that are functionally little different to anything else on the market into phenomena that people will line up overnight to get?

By contrast, Microsoft is the company that everybody loves to hate. These days, you don't even need to be a geek to express your hate. Tell an anti-Microsoft joke in the average business or college crowd, and you are guaranteed a laugh. Tell a joke against Apple, though, and surprised silence will struggle with strained smiles in your audience.

How true or how deserved Microsoft's or Apple's reputations are is irrelevant. Fashion isn't about truth; it's about perception. What matters is that bucking fashion is hard, especially when you are young, as much of the FOSS community tends to be. And, for all that techies like to think themselves above fashion, when it comes to hardware and software, many are as consumer-oriented as a teenager downloading the latest tune or buying the latest evening accessories. Given Apple's reputation, to criticize the company means labelling yourself as uncool -- and that's something that very few people at any age have the courage to do.

Old Perceptions Die Hard

Another reason that the FOSS community doesn't scrutinize Apple the way it needs to is that many of us are still operating on assumptions that no longer apply. Despite the dramatic reversal in Apple's fortunes in the last decades, many of us are still thinking about Apple as though we were still waiting for the millennium.

The same is true of perceptions of Microsoft, of course. But, in Microsoft's case, the failure to update perceptions matters less. While Microsoft is no longer denouncing FOSS as anti-American or communism, its basic wish to neutralize or assimilate the movement shows no more than token signs of changing. Only the tactics have changed, from denunciations to sponsoring and participation at FOSS conferences.

However, in the same period, Apple has been dramatically transformed. A decade ago, Apple seemed to be flagging, so it was easy to see it as FOSS's fellow underdog. Or, as one comment on Zemlin's blog suggested, the old adage seemed to apply: The enemy of our enemy is our friend. Even if you hoped to attract friends and family to free software, if they went to a Mac instead, you could at least console yourself that they had taken the positive step of being free of Windows.

Besides, since the introduction of OS X, you could always console yourself with the knowledge that Mac users were running a latter day Unix, just as you were.

Today, Apple is more widely available in the stores, and has become an accepted alternative to Windows. In some fields, such as music players, it is the market leader. Yet, while possibly less given to dirty tricks and fast practices than Microsoft, it has shown itself just as monopolistic and unfriendly to FOSS. The iTunes store, for example, has provisions for Windows machines, and none for GNU/Linux ones, while the App Store blocks centralized development in the name of security.

Yet, for the most part, the FOSS community's thinking has not kept up with Apple's changing fortunes. Too often, we still think of Apple as a Microsoft alternative when the reality is that its emphasis on interoperability makes Apple more of a Microsoft ally these days.

The Open Source Emphasis on Quality

Still another reason for under-estimating Apple goes to the core of the differences in the community. Although the free and open source supporters are close enough in outlook that they can work together on a daily basis, the two camps actually have very different outlooks. For free software advocates, sharing code is a means of giving all users control over their computing. But, although open source advocates often support free software's goal, for many of them sharing code is primarily a means of improving software quality.

The result of this difference is that while free software advocates avoid proprietary software, some open source advocates are open to using proprietary software if they are convinced that it is the best tool for the job. A few years ago, for example, Linus Torvalds insisted on using BitKeeper for version control in the development of the Linux kernel, until a change in licensing made him change his mind.

In the same way, if your main concern is software quality, it is hard to argue with using OS X. Much of the software on Apple computers does seem higher quality than the equivalent software on Windows, and, of course, for years Apple has led the way in usability design.

Add the reputation that the BSD operating systems have for even greater security and design excellence than GNU/Linux, and you can easily understand why those community members who are more oriented to software quality than to software freedom are more accepting of OS X than Windows. They may consider using an Apple machine an expedient until GNU/Linux catches up, but, no matter what their excuse happens to be, the point is that their orientation leads them directly into accepting proprietary software.

Not Looking Beyond Microsoft

Yet perhaps the greatest reason that FOSS community members give Apple a free pass is that they are too busy worrying about Microsoft to notice other concerns.

Those who focus on Microsoft's activities like to cast themselves in the role of watchdogs on behalf of the community. And perhaps they occasionally do some service in this role, although their many false alarms frequently discredit them.

But the main problem is that those who focus closely on Microsoft frequently ignore what else might be happening. Questions about how FOSS-based companies are acting within the community tend to be ignored, while other monopolies, such as that of Adobe in the design community are hardly noticed at all. As for a likely monopoly in the making like Apple, it receives next to no notice at all. Too often, neither the energy nor the interest in looking beyond Microsoft seems to exist.

The Coming Conflict

I would hate to see an anti-Apple sentiment to match the existing anti-Microsoft paranoia that already wastes so much community time. All the same, no matter what the social or historical trends that cause the FOSS community to see Apple in a friendly way, the time is overdue to re-evaluate the prevailing attitude. Increasingly, ignoring Apple's growing significance in emerging markets is looking like a profound mistake.

Mobile devices are clearly one of the Next Big Things in computing. That's why desktops like KDE are paying increasing attention to porting their work so that it will run on as many platforms as possible. And, while the mobile market is still rapidly changing, Apple seems to be emerging as one of its leaders. If this trend continues, then, by clinging to old attitudes and focusing on Microsoft, the FOSS community is preparing for the last campaign and ignoring the one that is coming in the next few years.

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