Open Source

Apple is doubling down on open source

Apple has been getting religion on open source, but more than code the industry needs its voice.

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Image: CNET

Apple may be the most secretive tech company on the planet, but it's finally starting to open up to open source. While the company has yet to issue its own open source report card, Google style, an Apple software engineer recently noted "at Apple we are doubling down on open source."

That's progress, and follows on the heels of the company acknowledging its use of Apache Mesos, as well as updating its open source page to proclaim, "Open source software is at the heart of Apple platforms and developer tools."

Is it enough?

SEE: Job description: iOS developer (Tech Pro Research)

Open is as open does

Most of Apple's software isn't open source, of course. From Siri to iOS, Apple keeps most of its code under proprietary lock and key. That's partly legacy, but it's also simply in keeping with how most companies operate, including big open source contributors like Google or Twitter.

Some of this has to do with trying to maintain competitive differentiation, but much of it comes down to effort: It's real, extra work to open source code.

Lately, Apple has been warming to more visible involvement in open source projects. Though the company has long used open source software within its proprietary products, it is now starting to contribute back, hosting projects on GitHub and on its own (like Swift).

As such, it's impressive to hear Apple's Michael Kjellman open up on Apple's open source ambitions:

[A]t Apple we are doubling down on open source. We have tons of code in flight — really big ones in fact — many already out for review. Our list of enhancements we want to do grows all the time so there is no shortage of work to do.

Some of that "work to do," as Red Hat's Jason Brooks calls out, could involve less draconian software licensing agreements. However, it's hard to find particular fault in Apple's SLAs, given that SLAs across the industry basically translate to "This software doesn't work and will almost certainly blow up at any moment." Apple's aren't any worse.

It's more than code

The cynic will argue that Apple is only getting into open source because it has to. In a world fueled by developers, enterprises must speak their language: open source code. As Klint Flinley put it, "[E]ven Apple can only risk alienating the developers on whom it relies for so many third-party apps and services so far. Coders have myriad options available to let them do their jobs the way they want; to keep them in-house, it turns out, Apple has to open up."

Finley was referring to Apple's now open source programming language, Swift, but it's true across the board with Apple technology. Apple has proved adept at getting developers to build for its ecosystem (e.g., the App Store), but it will need tighter ties to the developer crowd as it seeks to improve services like Siri that gain resonance as developers extend them (similar to how Amazon's Echo keeps getting better due to third-party integrations).

SEE: Apple's Swift programming language: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)

Which brings up a final point: As great as it is that "Apple continues to contribute and release significant quantities of open source code," it's even more important that the company contribute in other ways. As Wes McKinney writes of GitHub, it "overemphasizes the value of commits over the other kinds of important contributions to open source projects, like doing code reviews and discussing bugs and new features on the issue tracker."

For me, the most important thing Apple can do is talk about how it uses open source. Apple's taking the stage to talk about Apache Mesos and Siri, for example, is just the sort of thing to lower barriers to entry for less technical enterprises. Developers want to hear from other developers, and the fact that Apple is finally starting to participate in public conversations about open source is a huge step for Apple...and open source.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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