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The future of open source at Apple

Apple has a great future ahead of it, but can make it better with open source.

Apple has always been an open source-friendly company. In fact, as the company's website declares, it is "the first major computer company to make Open Source development a key part of its ongoing software strategy. From its Safari browser to its exceptional OS X operating system, Apple is open source to its core (pun unintended).

So, yes, Apple incorporates open-source projects into its products (which you can follow here). But its adoption of open source goes far beyond development. Apple is also an aggressive purchaser of open-source software. I'm familiar with several open-source companies that do business with Apple.

So, Apple contributes code and cash to the open-source community. While not transparent in many things (It's a tremendously secretive company), the company (to my biased eye) is clearly one of the "good guys" in open source.

The question I have, however, is what should come next for Apple and open source?

  1. Widen its (open-source) developer network. Spend five minutes at any O'Reilly conference and you'll see that Macs are almost the majority. Why? Because they're cool, powerful machines that make great development platforms. (You're never far from a terminal command line.) While Apple will remain secretive about its product plans, it need not impose the same code of silence on third-party developers. With a few more open APIs the Mac and iPod/iPhone can be the platforms of choice for many open-source developers.

  2. Invest in OpenOffice (NeoOffice). The only reason I was able to move to the Mac is because Microsoft ported its Office product to run on the Mac. As the Mac continues to gain market share, I suspect that Microsoft will grow increasingly uneasy about enabling a competitor, because more money is tied up in Windows + Office than Mac + Office. Apple therefore needs to have a credible alternative to Microsoft Office on the Mac, and iWork is not it. It has some nice bells and whistles, but it's just not up to Apple's standards.

    OpenOffice, on the other hand, is finally becoming a good product. I loathed it for many years, but I actually prefer it now for building presentations and I'm neutral on its spreadsheet program. With IBM working hard on the enterprise-y side of OpenOffice, Apple could round it out with some style. There's no point in reinventing the office productivity suite-wheel. It's time to effectively commoditize it and move on.

  3. Invest in FireFox and stop "forking" the market with Safari. Don't get me wrong. I love Safari. I think it is, hands down, the best browser out there, mainly because it's elegant and very fast. But the browser is another area where a community effort is better than any single company's efforts.

    I resisted Firefox for a long time. But I finally capitulated because of this blog, of all things. CNET only supports FireFox for its blogging software. I've since skinned FireFox to look (almost) exactly like Safari, and have tricked it out with Adblock Plus, Video Downloader, Wesabe's plug-in, etc.

    Would I prefer Safari? Yes, but I'd prefer even more to have Apple contributing its Safari resources to improving FireFox. It could always distribute a specialized version (as Novell and Sun do with OpenOffice), but its efforts would be better directed toward a community.

  4. Stop trying to lock down open-source development on the iPhone. There may well begood reasons for Apple doing this, including exclusivity clauses in its contract with AT&T (and the European carriers), but the future for Apple is not AT&T. It is the consumer and the developers who serve them. Try to convince me that AT&T wouldn't love to have its iPhones as the hottest development platform on the planet? Of course it would. It just doesn't know it yet.

    Apple needs ubiquity and community before it needs a few dollars from AT&T, because ubiquity and community will command dollars from AT&T and other carriers. Win the developer and her downstream users first and Apple wins all. Even Steve Ballmer knows that.

These are just a few suggestions among many. Net net: Apple can own the future, but it at some point it needs to open up (even further) to open source to get there. Apple arguably didn't need developers to make the iPod successful, because few people care about outside applications on a closed device like that. But the minute Apple touches computing (iPhone, Mac, etc.), a certain measure of transparency is critical to success.

Just ask Microsoft. It has billions of dollars that prove it.