Why does Apple get a break?

Want to know a dirty little secret? We, Linux and open-source users, love Apple's devices.

Of course, that's not true of all of us. I'm sure Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, wouldn't be caught dead with an iPhone in his pocket and a MacBook Pro in his laptop bag. But, as Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation pointed out in a recent blog posting, Why does Apple Always Seem to Get a Break??? "Walking around LinuxWorld this year it was interesting to see the number of Apple notebooks in the halls and various sessions. It wasn't necessarily that there were more Apple notebooks than Linux machines, but it was a good number and begs the question: why do open source people seem to cut Apple some slack when it comes to their very closed proprietary platform?"

I was also at LinuxWorld and I saw the same thing. By my estimate, I'd say about a third of the laptops were from Apple, with about half of the rest either running Linux natively -- largely Asus EEE mini-notebooks, Lenovo ThinkPads, and Dell laptops - or had had Linux installed on them by their owners. Only about 10% of the computers at the show were running Windows, none of these, I might add, were running Vista.

Of course, not all those Macs were running Mac OS X exclusively. I noticed many of them were running Ubuntu. Still, Zemlin's right. We're always ready to throw bricks at Microsoft, but we do tend to give Apple a free pass.

Zemlin's explanation is that using a Mac is like "staying at a five star hotel with the only catch being that you can't ever leave." To pursue the analogy a bit further, I'd add that using Windows is like staying at a road-stop flea-bag hotel where the shower only has two temperatures, cold and frigid, and, no, you can't ever leave this one either.

There's something to that. What Apple really has going for it is a matchless integration of form and function. Apple controls everything on a Mac and the result is an attractive, seamless combination of power and performance. Macs are, in a word, compelling.

Ubuntu leader Mark Shuttleworth wants the Linux desktop to 'shoot beyond the Mac.' I don't think it can the way it is now.

There are too many Linux desktop development teams and vendors. While, thanks to the ground-breaking Portland Project, the two leading Linux desktop interfaces, KDE and GNOME can interoperate with each other, the Linux desktop advances in several different directions at once. The Mac desktop always marches to Steve Jobs' orders.

The irony is that the Mac is based on open source. You don't need to look very deep into Mac OS X to find its open-source roots. It's built from the open-source operating systems Mach 3.0 and FreeBSD 5. Hiding right underneath Mac OS X's glossy Aqua interface are all of Unix's shell interfaces, the Emacs and vim text editors; the gcc and make development tools, and open-source favorites like Apache 2.0, PHP 5, and Ruby on Rails.

The same is also true, as Zemlin points out in another blog posting, iPhone - the Device I love to hate with the iPhone. The operating system is, once more, a descendant of Mach and FreeBSD by way of Darwin and the Web browser is built from WebKit.

What Apple has done is to take open source work, surround it with proprietary goodies, and then lock it down to a small set of specific hardware platforms. If the Linux desktop is to ever catch up with the Mac, it needs to take a page from the Apple playbook. No, not the proprietary part. Someone needs to co-ordinate a distribution with a specific set of PC models, keep only the best open-source programs in each software category and throw out the rest, and then pound and polish on what's left until, like with Macs, they have a system that just works.

Until that happens, we're still going to be tempted by Macs, iPhones and iPods. After all, in a way, these most proprietary of all platforms are also the most successful of all open-source platforms.

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