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Apple's Open Source Bait & Switch

The long term supporters were led down the garden path. Systematically.

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The second part of Apple's multi-pronged strategy in the late 1990s was to curry favour with the open source community. Developer voices had been heard early in the transition to a 'real' operating system that perhaps even the developer tools - primarily PBX and IB - should be made open source as the bugginess of these products was stifling third party support. Apple made it clear they were entertaining the suggestion.

After much deliberation it was decided the coming 'OS X' although based on OPENSTEP 4.2 would have the same underbody as its NeXTSTEP forerunner: FreeBSD Unix. But instead of incorporating it ad hoc into their design as NeXT had done they revised it. And in a cute maneuver called it 'Darwin'.

Darwin and the accompanying 'OpenDarwin' project were never truly open source, never worked as open source, and were never intended to behave as open source. But the marketing 'hype' Apple generated did reach academia and scientific institutions - for a while. Until the curators of the OpenDarwin project finally tired of the gross duplicity and closed it down.

Apple have since attempted to 'resuscitate' a bit of the old 'fervour' by creating and supporting prosthetic 'open source' sites but those in the know know they were betrayed. Again.

April 2002

The Internet Software Consortium, co-founded in 1994 by amongst others Rick Adams of UUNET fame, and Apple joined together in 2002 to create the OpenDarwin project and website. The explicit goal was to create an independent branch of Apple's Darwin that would increase collaboration between Apple and the open source community.

According to the current Wikipedia piece on the project, 'Apple theoretically benefited from the project because improvements to OpenDarwin would be incorporated into Darwin releases; and the open source community supposedly benefited from being given complete control over its own operating system'.

Four years later with no end in sight to the project's systemic failures co-curator Rob Braun announced he would be closing the shop down. Braun wrote that OpenDarwin had 'become a mere hosting facility for Mac OS X related projects' and his and other efforts to create a standalone product had failed, adding: 'availability of sources, interaction with Apple representatives, difficulty building and tracking sources, and a lack of interest from the community have all contributed to this'.

February 2006

Why found and at least pretend to support a project one has no interest in? The Wayback Machine offers some clues.

Apple failed to build a community around Darwin in the 7 years since its original release because it was not a corporate direction but rather a marketing stunt.

During the heyday of the dot com days open source was good. Everyone wanted a piece of the open source pie and this was Apple's way of getting it.

This was great all the way around. The marketing department wins, the engineers win, and the open source world appears to win.

Over the course of a year Apple were starting to alienate some of their users and contributors. They were developing a reputation for not taking contributions, particularly not new features or additions. Small bug fixes which were easily reviewed might be accepted back but medium sized features such as SysV IPC support were not getting traction.

People were getting upset at spending all this time working on their project which was ultimately supposed to benefit Apple and having all of their efforts ignored. None of these contributions got a 'sorry we're not interested' or even an acknowledgment from Apple engineers. These contributions were almost universally met with silence as if they went to /dev/null.


Apple ended up hiring over half of their most active contributors - which amounted to roughly 3-4 people. This drained the contributor pool significantly and effectively muffled the ones that got hired. Once these contributors became employees they signed NDA and intellectual property agreements and were restrained from much of the unrestricted participation they enjoyed prior to employment.

They discovered the reason for the lack of communication: a culture of secrecy.

Even being perceived as someone who might leak information - even accidentally - was a liability and it was best to just not communicate with those outside Apple or even outside your own group.

Additionally they discovered the reason why no one wanted to accept large patches: whoever submitted to the build became personally responsible for them and everyone had more than enough to work on with the features given to them by managers, let alone people not in their management hierarchy.

Engineers were rated based on how they met their management's goals and management's goals did not include anything related to Darwin or an external community.

With the creation of the OpenDarwin Project Apple were able to push open source to the back burner: they were able to check off their open source agenda item with hardware donations instead of cultural shift and true interaction. Source was pushed out when binary forms of Mac OS X were made available to the public, the need to provide buildable source was diminished, since that was OpenDarwin's problem, and the engineers were generally happy to have one less thing to be harassed about.

Over the course of several years the original goal of creating a free standalone OS and a community around it had failed. There was no community and the free standalone OS had become composed of binary packages and source no one could build.

July 2006

Why did OpenDarwin fail? Again: ask co-curator Rob Braun.

The problem was Darwin was a marketing ploy and nothing more. Marketing thought by throwing some source files over the wall they could increase their market share and revenue. And they were right.

Go to almost any technical conference these days and there is an astonishing number of Mac laptops in the crowd. Prior to Mac OS X people would have been laughed out of the building for having a Mac but now with the magic of open source it was suddenly OK or even cool.

Apple had no intention of becoming involved with any community outside its own walls.

There were some well intentioned engineers and even a few low level managers duped by their own marketing department and that was all.

These people had given substantial amounts of their free time under the illusion they were doing something Right, something Good - but in the end were simply used by their own company's marketing department.

December 2007

As time goes on Apple's OS X bears less and less resemblance to its Unix heritage, its 'Rock Solid Foundation™'. Where once Apple referred directly to Unix as this foundation they today more and more just refer to it as a 'rock solid foundation' of some sort or another.

They've set up the Mac OS Forge site within their own IP block (at in an effort to save face but even the kindest of pundits call it anaemic at best.

Starting with OS X 10.4 Tiger Apple began to alter long standing Unix source trees to accommodate their own changes in design. The original idea of Apple leading the open source community against the market might of Microsoft has long since been dashed. Apple are simply not interested - with the richest heritage in the history of personal computing at their disposal they only want to sell more beige gadgets.

See Also
Red Hat Diaries: Suicide Fanboys
Macworld: Apple closes down OS X
Industry Watch: OpenDarwin Shutting Down
Hotspots: Apple's Cross-Platform Bait & Switch

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