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Open Source: Are Macs the Red-Headed Stepchild?

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.

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.

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."

Yet others take a middle-of-the-road approach. Notes Andrew Peterson, software lead for Carbon Five, which produces content management systems and other enterprise solutions, "Years back, the Mac often had more innovative open-source and shareware software, and it would show up on Windows months (or years) later." Open-source apps for Windows eventually became more popular for a time, and now Linux has taken its place at the head of the table. Like Igesund, Peterson believes that's likely a result of developers working with the platform they know, as well as a rise in the popularity of Linux in general.

Yet Peterson thinks that may change and that more open-source developers are embracing Macs. In the past few years, he says, many developers have embraced the Mac as a great development platform. "About three years ago, the Mac Java-based tools finally started working as well as they do on Windows, and most development and server-based tools are quite in check."

Why are more developers leaning toward Macs? OpenCollabNet community manager John Mark Walker says it's because Apple is finally giving them a reason to do so. "For one thing, the move to Intel made life much easier for developers. For another, developers are, for the first time, living in a Mac environment. It's only in the last two years or so that the majority of gear at developer conferences has been made by Apple."

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