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Apple opens parts of its OS

The computer vendor takes its first tentative steps toward the open source philosophy by opening up the source code to parts of its Mac OS X Server in an effort to garner support from developers.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
CUPERTINO, California--Apple Computer took its first tentative steps toward the open source philosophy today by declaring it will open up the source code to parts of its Mac OS X Server in an effort to garner support from software developers.

As reported yesterday, the Cupertino, California-based computer vendor is inching toward the open source ideal to capitalize on the runaway success of the Linux OS, a pioneering success of the open source model. Apple will release core parts of its Mac OS X Server called "Darwin" under its Apple Public Source License.

With open source, independent developers have access to the original programming instructions, letting them tweak software for particular purposes and in turn make it more attractive to customers. Open source operating systems also tend to cost less than their fully proprietary counterparts.

In recent weeks, both Silicon Graphics and Sun have partially embraced the open source model by deciding to expose portions of their respective Unix operating systems, though neither company has yet actually done so.

The shift toward open source, detailed by interim CEO Steve Jobs in a press conference at Apple headquarters in Cupertino today, was coupled with the general release of the Mac OS X Server. While Apple had previewed the OS X Server earlier in the year, a surprise came with the price--only $499 for the server-based OS. Apple said in January that it was going to charge $999 for a license, although some sort of discount was expected.

"If we all work on this together, we can make a better product than any one company by themselves," said Jobs, who wore the same black vest and jeans that he seems to wear for every keynote speech. "The open source community is going to be excited about it."

While the announcement certainly marks Apple's entry into the open source environment, the company isn't going head first into the fray. Only select parts of Mac OS X Server are expected to be "opened up."

Apple will open the code to its AppleTalk network file system, its HFS file system, and its directory services software, said Avie Tevanian, senior vice president of software engineering at Apple.

Some of the elements of the new OS that will be released under the new philosophy--the Mach microkernel, the BSD Unix interface, and the Apache Web Server--already available as open source software, but the open source community will be able to benefit from the contributions Apple programmers have made to that code.

The vaunted Apple user interface, however, will not be released under the new open source program, nor will software that allows older Apple programs to run on the new operating systems. Still, Jobs said that Apple is considering opening up additional, unspecified elements of the operating system to users.

Opening up the code for Mac OS X Server also likely means parts of Apple's next desktop OS, Mac OS X, will be open because it is based on similar components.

Mac OS X Server has its technological roots in Next, a Jobs startup that Apple purchased to reinvigorate its operating system offerings. Apple began adapting the Next operating system into an Apple-specific version called Rhapsody, now called Mac OS X Server.

The foundation of Mac OS X Server is the Mach microkernel, the part of the operating system that talks to the hardware. Atop that, the system looks like BSD Unix, a flavor of Unix originally developed at the University of California at Berkeley.

The release of OS X Server marks the beginning of Apple's two-tiered OS strategy where there is a "Pro" and "Consumer" version of the OS, much like Microsoft's Windows NT and Windows serve different markets.

Mac OS X--a separate product from Mac OS X Server--will be based on the technology in OS X Server, but it will be better able to run current Mac programs. Mac OS X is not slated for widespread release until at least the third quarter of 1999, so Apple said it wanted to give its high-end customers an early shot at using the software via OS X Server.

Jobs said the Mac OS Server, using the Apache software running on a $4,999 Apple machine, can handle more Web connections per second than comparably priced machines from Dell, running either Linux or Windows NT, or than a considerably more expensive machine from Sun.

Jobs also touted the software's NetBoot abilities, which lets clients over the network use an operating system and application software stored on a server, simplifying network administration headaches and letting users take their personalized settings with them as they move around from one machine to another.

Jobs acknowledged that Apple faces competition with the new software.

"This is the first modern server Apple has ever shipped. We're not suggesting we'll take over the server market. That's not our goal. Our goal is to run an incredibly great server that runs on Macintosh hardware," he said.

Mac OS X Server can't run any software from the earlier product line, but the upcoming desktop version will be able to do so, Jobs said.

Open source luminaries back Apple
Apple lined up support from two open source gurus for today's announcement. Eric Raymond, author of open source manifesto The Cathedral and the Bazaar", and Apache cofounder Brian Behlendorf.

Raymond said Apple's open source license passes the rigorous tests of the Open Source Definition, which basically means three things: anyone has the right to redistribute the modified source, anyone can use parts of the original source without the permission of the original owner, and developers can take the software down their own path if they're dissatisfied with the path the original developer is taking.

"We hope the experience Apple gains will encourage them and educate them so they can open their source more and more in the future, so eventually it will all be open," Raymond said.

Raymond also said he believes Apple's open source decision will give BSD Unix a shot in the arm. Though there's little technical difference between BSD and Linux, BSD has played second fiddle to Linux in the open source community because Linux has a better licensing situation and a better social organization, Raymond said.

Behelendorf, too, praised Apple's open source leanings. "It's clear to us they get it when it comes to knowing how to do open source," he said.