Apple: Worse for open source than Microsoft?

For as long as anyone can remember Microsoft has been seen as the primary enemy of free and open source software (FOSS). Free software advocates over the years have held Microsoft up as the pre-eminent example of how software should not be produced and distributed; an example of how they did not want it to be.

It wasn’t without good reason that Microsoft was seen as enemy number 1. The company has done everything in its power over the years to undermine Linux and free software. CEO Steve Ballmer has even gone so far as to label free software anti-American and he never misses an opportunity to take a swipe at Linux.

Most recently Microsoft has been attacking free software through patent threats and legal means. Its deal with Novell was based on allegations that Linux allegedly infringed on hundred of its patents, and more recently the company has sued TomTom for using Linux in its GPS devices.

The list of attacks against FOSS is long and makes a compelling case that Microsoft is in fact the primary opponent of free and open source software.


The times are changing, however, and Microsoft is neither the primary nor the only enemy of free software. The new number one enemy could well be Apple. While Microsoft has been gradually shifting its position on free software towards a more tolerant one – even going so far as to releasing some software as open source – Apple has been closing ever more doors in the face of freedom.

This is not to say that Microsoft is the new best friend of free software – there’s still a lot of double-talk going on – but Apple is an even bigger threat. Not only to free software but to many other freedoms: the freedom to use the platform you want, the freedom to use the applications you want, the freedom to listen to the music you want to.

We are quickly moving into a new world of distribution. A world in which vendors such as Apple and Amazon with its Kindle control not just the platform but also the applications, books and multimedia that run on it.

It’s potentially far more proprietary than anything Microsoft ever came up with and already Apple is showing us how badly this could end.

Apple, for example, has already decided not to include support for Adobe’s Flash on its iPhones and iPad devices. Adobe is not the best example of a free software company itself but even if it wanted to give you Flash software for your iPad, for free, it can’t. Similarly, Opera created a version of its browser for the iPhone but it was only after a prolonged campaign by Opera fans that Apple allowed the software into its applications market.

The problem here is that in this new software model it is not good enough for a software developer to want to develop an application for an iPhone.

They also need to get approval from Apple before their application is available to users. The same is true of Apple’s control over multimedia such as songs and video. Because they control the platform Apple controls the content. It’s what XML co-founder and now Android developer, Tim Bray, calls “Disney-fied walled garden“. It is, in simple terms, a stifling of innovation.

Developers locked-in

It’s not just the distribution of applications that Apple controls so tightly. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently managed to get hold of a copy of the agreement that iPhone developers have to sign with Apple. The contract is filled with limitations including those that bar developers from distributing software created with the iPhone software development kit (SDK) via any avenue other than the App Store. The terms of the agreement also ban developers from “jailbreaking” an iPhone or helping others do so and gives Apple the right to pull any application from the App Store at any time.

There is also a clause in the contract that bans reverse engineering any of Apple’s iPhone OS or SDK. This is something that directly affects open source software. Because Apple doesn’t actually provide software to manage its iPhones and iPods on the Linux platform, community developers have been doing exactly this: reverse engineering the iPod and iPhone OSes to make compatible applications for Linux. Without these the devices would be unusable on anything other than Apple-approved platforms.

Of course users could simply stop using Apple’s products and developers could stop developing for the iPhone and iPad. That would send a strong message. The problem is that Apple is just one of many companies heading down the road in which they control the platform and in doing so they are curtailing freedom.

There was a time when Microsoft was seen as the enemy of software freedom and Apple, by virtue of being seen as the “underdog”, was given far more leniency. Things need to change and Apple needs to be seen for what it really is: a threat to innovation and freedom.

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Apple: Worse for open source than Microsoft?