Open source vs. Apple: The holy war that wasn't

Open-source developers are fine with Apple, reflecting good taste and higher priorities.


Open source used to be about dogma as much as development. But those days are gone.

Actually, the very term "open source" suggests a more relaxed view on software sharing, having displaced its GPL-wielding free software cousins years back. Whereas a free sourceror wouldn't be caught dead using anything other than (GNU) Linux, open sourcerors are happy to use whatever works.

Which, according to a new Eldarion survey, is Apple. Lots and lots of Apple.

Open source runs Apple

While open-source contributors remain less likely to use Apple products than others, they still use a lot of Apple. In fact, according to Eldarion's survey, nearly 75% of the open-source contributors surveyed happily use at least one Apple product:

  • Nearly three out of four (73%) open-source contributors use at least some Apple products
  • The majority of open-source contributors (65%) use OS X as their main operating system, with 22% using Linux and 8% using Microsoft Windows
  • More than one in two (57%) open-source contributors surveyed use the iPhone, while 38% use an Android phone
  • The top reason given by open-source contributors for choosing Apple was "I like the ecosystem" (33%), followed by "dependability" (30%), "better than Microsoft (21%), and "other" (16%)
  • For the minority of open-source contributors who avoid Apple entirely, the top reason given was "because Apple is the antithesis of open source" (50%), followed by "it's overpriced and not worth the money" (31%), "it's so cool it's uncool" (13%), and "other" (6%)

Part of this may come down to the 132 people who answered Eldarion's survey. Eldarion is a web development company that focuses on Django development. As such, the developers in its immediate sphere of influence are going to be web-focused, and hence less likely to be the core infrastructure gear heads that live and die Linux or other open-source infrastructure.

But much of what Eldarion's survey shows is simply the natural progression of the open-source movement.

The more things change...

Back in 2007, I noted "The ironic rise of the Mac among open source developers." While I offered a number of reasons, two stand out to me now.

First, Mac OS X is UNIX, and so it's a comfortable system for many open sourcerors to use. While OS X hides UNIX behind a beautiful UI, Apple also makes it very easy to get to a command line (through Terminal) so that developers can use what "just works" when they want, and they can also dig into the guts of the OS when they need to.

But this calls out the second reason why Apple has been so big with open-source developers: it works.

Developers who want to spend time building, say, a new compiler, don't necessarily want to have to spend equal or greater amounts of time building out related infrastructure. Sometimes, you don't to fiddle with your OS: you just want it to work.

ActiveState software executive Bernard Golden, talking about enterprise adoption of open source, argues that only some software will make sense for deep commitment:

"While open source will be spread throughout your applications, certain components will represent critical dependencies. Those are ones you need to be certain about regarding their maturity, community size and robustness, and openness to code contributions and feature suggestions. For those components that represent dependencies, understand that you are, in effect, getting married."

In other words, for some critical projects, contribution matters. If you're going to rely on an open-source project, it makes sense to help steer it through contributions.

But for everything else (like your desktop OS), it's probably not worth getting religious about it.

All of this is a long way of stating the obvious: open-source developers are people, too. They have a limited amount of time and attention, and they (like many of us) choose to use Apple products even though they don't necessarily support their larger interest in contributing to open source.

The two aren't contradictory. It's simply a way of saying "I use Apple so that I have more time to contribute to the projects that matter most to me."

Also see