The ironic rise of the Mac among open source developers

The Mac has become commonplace at open source conferences. Why? Why is such a closed platform a massive hit among freedom-loving developers?

I've been attending the O'Reilly Open Source Conference for years and have watched an interesting thing happen. A rising number of attendees have come with Mac OS X-based laptops. In fact, throughout the tech world, you see a dramatic increase in the number of people toting Macs. Why?

The Mac, after all, is a closed platform, just as Windows is. In fact, arguably, Apple is a more proprietary company than Microsoft has ever thought of being, controlling hardware and software alike. Just look at how Apple has managed its iPhone product: developers were initially shunned, and then they were allowed to crawl onto the device through the browser (and not a community-based browser like Firefox, but rather through its own Safari).

As a die-hard Mac addict and open-source advocate myself, I was thinking this morning about why the two increasingly converge, despite all the ironies and conflicting approaches. Here's my best guess.

  1. Apple, for all its secrecy and contradictions, is a child of open source in its OS X incarnation. The company doesn't always give back to the projects from which it borrows, but Apple does contribute to a range of projects. Contributing to is different from distributing, of course, and Apple tends to not allow developers the freedom to fork its own projects like Darwin. But the Mac shows what can be done with open-source projects, and it's beautiful.

    I suspect that people are willing to cut Apple some slack as the underdog in the desktop race, too, which they may not allow if Apple continues to grow its market share.

  2. Apple is not Microsoft. This seems like a silly reason to use it, but I believe that many people besides me are not great fans of the Linux desktop and see the Mac as a way to use an exceptional operating system without continuing under the hold of Microsoft.

    In sum, I think some developers prefer the Cupertino devil to the Redmond devil, as it were. It's a small proof point that it's very possible to beat Microsoft, even if the market share numbers don't yet show it. (Some would argue, by the way, that Apple's small market share and proprietary platform have blessed it, not cursed it.)

  3. Apple represents a design aesthetic to which open-source developers aspire. While many open-source developers probably relate to the utilitarian interface of Windows, I suspect that more wish that they could churn out products that looked more like OS X.

  4. Related to the above, the hardware is beautiful. Enough said.

  5. OS X gives developers quick access to a terminal, with Unix behind it. It gives them a Linux-like experience (yes, I see the irony in what I just wrote), in other words, but highly polished and mature. I don't want to see the command line, but many do, and the Mac is arguably unparalleled in giving developers its power while still letting them live in a beautiful user interface the rest of the time. The Mac, as it turns out, is a great development platform, though it, in itself, is not open for development.

  6. The alpha geeks have long used Macs. Not all of them, by any stretch of the imagination, but when these developers have attended O'Reilly conferences and seen Tim O'Reilly and his team using Macs, I suspect that it has rubbed off. Now, the downside to this phenomenon is that as the Mac becomes more commonplace, it may well generate its own backlash, as developers will chafe at being part of the Mac herd. I'm guessing that Ubuntu will be the operating system to pick up where the Mac leaves off.

  7. The Mac, despite being a closed platform, actually affords ample opportunity for customization. It's quite open to fine-tuning it to one's individual needs through scripting, open APIs and such. In this way, it feels a lot more open than its licensing might suggest.

  8. OS X allows developers to look under the covers, though not to distribute. This means that it's not open source, of course, but Apple's opening up of Darwin and other projects made the company more accessible to open-source developers, even if it arguably didn't go far enough.

  9. Maybe the open-source world isn't as religious about freedom as is thought? I have a hard time with this answer, since I'm sometimes dubbed a zealot for believing that the GPL is the best open-source license yet I'm a hard-core Mac freak. I can't really explain the contradiction, except that I found the Linux desktop difficult to use back when I used it (2004 and 2005), and I never liked Windows beyond Windows 2000. At a certain point, I just want something that works well. Maybe I'm not alone?

These are a few of my thoughts, by no means conclusive. What do you think? Do you see the rise of the Mac within the open-source world as a contradiction, as I do? To what factors do you attribute its adoption among the freedom-loving set?

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