Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Image: CNET

Apple made a mistake in claiming to be “the first major computer company to make Open Source development a key part of its ongoing software strategy,” but not necessarily a factual one.

At least, not an important one.

After all, when Apple embraced an open source kernel at the heart of Mac OS X back in 1999, most other companies were still buying into Microsoft’s “Linux is a cancer” argument. Though today it’s de rigeur to use and release open source software, in 1999 even adoption of open source remained rare, and releasing a product based on open source…crazy talk.

As such, Apple’s real mistake is that it simply doesn’t know how to talk about open source. My concern is that given the tongue-lashing it has taken over its claim, it may feel less inclined to contribute more.

First, but not among equals?

The source of the sin was Apple’s release of Swift as open source. Though the page now humbly acknowledges “open source software is at the heart of Apple platforms and developer tools,” it originally touted Apple as “the first major computer company to make Open Source development a key part of its ongoing software strategy.”

Too much?

Perhaps. Or not. Apple has actually had that claim on its site for some time, but it wasn’t until Swift was released that people paid attention. Ironically, developers started grousing about it on the eve of Apple living up to the spirit of its claim.

No good deed goes unpunished, indeed….

But what about that claim? ZDNet’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols chastises Apple, arguing, “True, Apple has used open-source software for years, but that’s not the same thing as making open source development ‘a key part of its strategy.'”

Sorry, but this isn’t correct. “Using open source” can absolutely be the same thing as “making open source development ‘a key part of its strategy.'”

Today we rightly laud Google, for example, for being an open source leader, but Google has long used and heavily modified MySQL, Linux, and other open source projects without contributing much or any of that code back. This isn’t wrong. It’s just business as usual.

But not in 1999, it wasn’t. In 1999, most of the industry was in the equivalent of open source diapers. When I joined Linux startup Lineo in 2000, I spent most of my time trying to convince would-be customers that open source wasn’t an evil parasite that would foul their intellectual property. It wasn’t until IBM’s billion-dollar commitment to Linux in 2001 that enterprises started to shed their fear of embracing open source.

So, maybe Apple isn’t the absolute first, but then who is? It’s unclear, and in that lack of clarity Apple has as much right as anyone to stake its claim.

Except that isn’t what we do in open source.

It’s gauche to brag about copyleft

Sure, some like open source luminary Eric Raymond can get away with wondering, “Am I the world’s most famous programmer?” (Easy answer: no.) But such tone-deaf hubris is generally frowned upon within the open source world where, in fact, much depends upon playing nicely with others.

This is Apple’s real mistake: It doesn’t know how to pass off a humble brag with ease. Most companies that have participated in open-source development for years have learned to thank “The Community” and otherwise give glory to others even if what they really want you to notice is just how fantastic they are at giving.

Which is why companies increasingly tout their open source contributions on dedicated pages, insisting that they are “committed to offering choice, flexibility, and lower cost of computing for end users” even if they make all their money from the license of proprietary software.

Others make sure they say “Open Source & Standards are key to making our planet smarter and improving the way we live and work.” But what they sell is proprietary software.

Which, again, is par for the software course. This is what every technology company does (perhaps Facebook excepted). The difference is that others have learned to couch their open source adoption and contributions in ways that do them credit without overtly taking credit.

In short, give Apple a break. The contribution of Swift is awesome, and we shouldn’t be so consumed with shaking our fists at a gauche claim to “firstness” that we overlook a truly great thing Apple has just done, and forget that, yes, it really was one of the first to make open source central to its product strategy. Whether it was THE FIRST really doesn’t matter.