John Gruber, in Why Apple Won’t Open Source Its Apps, responds at length to my Time to Switch piece, but really mostly to a 2004 piece, Apple Should Go Open Source. I always enjoy and usually agree with John’s writing (for example, his piece today on DRM); but I think he’s nearly 100% wrong about how Open Source and business fit together.

John agrees that open-sourcing the app suite (iCal, Mail.app, iChat, and so on) would be a net benefit to the community, but suggests that Apple won’t, for business reasons; that this would impair their ability to sell a new OS release to a few million people every couple of years for a couple of hundred bucks.

I just don’t see it. If there were an enhanced guerrilla version of, for example, Mail.app, that did message-selection correctly and had a next-unread button, both these fixes being provided by a community member, some things would happen. First, I’d use it. Second, the vast majority of Mac users wouldn’t. Third, when the Leopard release of Mail.app, presumably with new goodies, came out, it would be back-ported to Tiger. Fourth, I and most of the other people using the variant Mail.app would upgrade to Leopard anyhow.

Why would we upgrade? One reason is that the “big cat” releases all contain OS-level as well as app-level enhancements; and often these are the interesting ones. Second, and more important, by paying Apple a hundred bucks or so a year, on average, I’m buying peace of mind; every week or two I hit “Software Update” and sleep a little sounder knowing that all my bits and pieces are as up-to-date and secure as Apple knows how to make them.

If Apple were like Sun, and selling to companies rather than individuals, it would make more sense to just sign a $100/year maintenance contract; which is more or less exactly our business model for Solaris. But for consumer products, Apple’s much-ballyhooed new OS releases produce essentially the same result, plus they’re a useful marketing vehicle.

The real lesson: Open Source isn’t anti-business and it shouldn’t even impact your software revenue. As Eric Raymond wrote in The Magic Cauldron (this was before he cracked up): “software is largely a service industry operating under the persistent but unfounded delusion that it is a manufacturing industry.”

And remember, if Apple gets the licensing right, they’d be free to grab the good hacks & patches that the community comes up with, and this would help them keep up in the UI race with Windows on one hand and GNU/Linux on the other. They’re gonna need all the help they can get.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
June 20, 2006
· Technology (77 fragments)
· · Mac OS X (113 more)
· Business (106 fragments)
· · Open Source (41 more)

By .

I am an employee
of Amazon.com, but
the opinions expressed here
are my own, and no other party
necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my
professional interests is
on the author page.