I preface this by saying a couple of things. First and foremost — rest in peace Mr. Jobs. What you accomplished in your life cannot, in any way, be refuted. Second, I am not and have never been a fan of the Apple product. So what you are about to read might be of some surprise…but in light of the loss, I want to honor and respect the dead.
I fully believe Steve Jobs had a fairly profound (yet unrecognized) effect on open source. This effect may not have been completely direct, but his life and times with Apple certainly had an impact on open source software. Let me explain.
Before Steve Jobs dreamed up iTunes, the open source world was chugging along happily with single-purpose, multimedia players like XMMS. Sure they worked well, but managing large numbers of music was not the easiest task and the interface was a bit shy of user-friendly (but then most everything back then in the open source world was less than user-friendly). Along comes iTunes and the iPod and everything changed. The masses fell in love with this new device and the idea of carrying around their entire music collection in their pockets.
Problem! That shiny new iPod had no desire to communicate with Linux. It was up to the developers to make this work. And they did. Gtkpod was created, which became a mostly-reliable solution for using the iPod on Linux. Of course things evolve and Apple had a penchant for breaking things so that the open source developers were once again reverse-engineering a solution. But there was no other way. It became quite clear the iPod was the future of music enjoyment and the open source developers had to stay on their toes — otherwise anyone wanting to own an iPod would have to use either Apple or Windows.
That was not and is not a viable solution to any open source fan.
So … in that sense, Apple helped open source to make sure their reverse-engineering skills were just about the best in the world. It also proved that no matter what a company does to their product, most likely the open source developer can overcome the obstacles put in place. As a result, I can connect an iPhone to a Linux-based PC and, at least, sync music and photos. Had Steve Jobs not brought the iPod and iTunes to life — open source developers would now be reverse-engineering the Zune to be of use on Linux. Shudder.
How else did Steve Jobs help open source?
Design. This one many might argue with, but when Steve Jobs rejoined Apple and the new products started hitting the shelves, it became clear the masses wanted something other than the usual boring beige towers and black laptops. Along with that was a shift from the tired desktop metaphor known as the Windows Desktop. When OS X arrived it proved that people could, in fact, adjust to change and that a desktop with some eye candy could be user-friendly. This gave the developers of such tools as Compiz and Cairo dock all the impetus they needed to forge on with their brilliant products. After all, if Apple could basically “borrow” those technologies (in design and execution), there was no reason why the originals couldn’t flourish.
Although they didn’t flourish as much as we would all like them to have, they continued on.
Finally, what Steve Jobs did to bring Apple back to the public also helped open source in one major way. As much as I hate to say this, without Apple around, Microsoft would be seen (by the naked public eye) as the only player in the market. If that were to have happened, open source would probably be nothing more than a blip on a screen — another BeOS or OS/2. But with OS X out there, the general public realized there were other choices and those choices were actually superior to what they were accustomed to. OS X helped to open the door to open source a little further.
Considering the circumstances, I don’t want to dig into the argument of what Steve Jobs and Apple did to hurt open source. So, for now, I salute Steve Jobs for what he and his products did for open source. Regardless of how he conducted business or what his products did for the state of “lock down”, Jobs was a genius and deserves a salute from the Penguin as he is remembered in a time of loss.
And besides, Mr. Jobs did a heck of a job making the desktop and laptop cool again. So long Jobs, and thanks for all the fish.