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Apple warms up to open source community

June 16, 1999
Web posted at: 12:46 p.m. EDT (1646 GMT)

by Steven Brody apple

SAN FRANCISCO (IDG) -- At the USENIX conference in Monterey, CA, Apple Computer Inc. detailed its recent romance with the open source community, but said the difficulty in licensing some open source software would prevent collaboration with, for example, the Linux community.

Last month, Apple launched it's Darwin operating system, an open source version of Mac OS X Server, to a mixed response from open source developers. Darwin -- based on the Mach 3 kernel and FreeBSD 4.4, along with AppleTalk and the HFS+ filesystem -- was lauded by open source guru Eric Raymond as a step in the right direction, but the Apple Public Source License (APSL) was received with less enthusiasm by other prominent members of the community.

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"We feel that a few problems in the present version of the [APSL] disqualify it as 'Open Source' or 'Free Software'," reads a statement authored by several community members, including Wichert Akkerman, leader of the Debian Project. "[Much] of the material that Apple has just released under the APSL originated at The University of California, Berkeley and at Carnegie-Mellon University. Many of these files do not significantly differ from the pre-Apple versions except that they bear the addition of a new copyright and license. Other files are entirely authored by Apple or bear significant modifications that should indeed be considered Apple's property. Where Apple has not significantly modified individual files from their pre-Apple versions, their original licenses should be preserved without the addition of the APSL."

But playing ball with the open source community can lead companies into a tangled web of licensing issues, some of which may be irreconcilable with the agenda of a for-profit company like Apple.

In a USENIX session on this subject, Apple's senior software engineer Fred Sanchez said that Apple was wary of software licensed under the popular GNU Public License (GPL), because of the restrictions placed on incorporating the code into commercial software.

"The GNU license," said Sanchez, "tries to require you to ship your source code, and requires that any [software] derivatives fall under the GPL. The problem is that 'derivative' is not well defined in the license even though it is frequently used."

Sanchez said that not only is the license unclear, but corners of the open source community have little or no interest in working with commercial entities to integrate proprietary and free software. Sanchez quoted Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and author of the GNU Manifesto as having told an recent audience "Free software is meant to replace, not enhance proprietary software."

The ambiguities of the GNU Public license are responsible in part for Apple's lack of interest in developing for the many Linux distributions that are licensed under GPL. By contrast, said Sanchez, BSD groups do not demand that users of FreeBSD or NetBSD code contribute their innovations to the community, and are therefore more friendly to corporations. Sanchez added that BSD code is arguably more stable than the more popular Linux OS, because the former has been around longer.

Sanchez said Apple has no plans to use Linux in the future, and that it will not be funding external open source development efforts. He emphasized, however, that an informal plan is in place to develop an internal infrastructure at Apple that will allow developers to put forth their projects as candidates for release under the APSL.

Harnessing open source

"People seem to think that if a company can just take the leap to embracing open source, then there will suddenly be legions of developers working ceaselessly to improve on its code," quipped Don Rosenberg of Stromium Technologies, in a USENIX session following Sanchez's presentation.

The reality, said Rosenberg, is that choosing the right open source distribution and license is a delicate balancing act that must account for a number of factors. Most importantly, a company must still manage to maintain its revenue streams and keep its key products proprietary.

Although Rosenberg did not comment on Apple's strategy, he did cite Sun Microsystems' Sun Community Source License (SCSL) as a less-than-successful effort to inspire open source developers. Developers can license any Sun product falling under the SCSL, and view the source code, but commercial products derived from the code must be licensed under a second, royalty-based license with Sun.

Rosenberg was met with silence when he asked his USENIX audience if there were any developers listening who were inspired by the SCSL.

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Stromium Technologies' page on licensing open source
The Apple Public Source License
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