Do penguins eat apples?

Once upon a time, Apple dreamed of killing giants. Today, that hope belongs to a new, open-source generation.

By Andrew Leonard
Published September 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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For Macintosh lovers, the joking question posed in early August in the online discussion forum "comp.sys.mac.advocacy" packed a diabolical punch -- the kind that stabs you in the gut even as it makes you laugh. In a topic titled "A little Linux advocacy," a software developer named John Jensen rhetorically addressed Apple founder and current interim CEO Steve Jobs. "Steve," asked Jensen, "do you want to sell colored plastic all your life or do you want to change the world?"

Sure to ring a bell with any follower of Apple, the jibe made reference to a hallowed landmark of Apple history -- that moment when Jobs seduced Pepsi executive John Sculley into becoming Apple's CEO by asking him, "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?"


How times change. Today, Jobs is the man pushing sugar -- ultrasweet bondi-blue iMacs and tangerine-orange iBooks. So don't look to Apple, implied Jensen's post, if you're really looking for excitement. Instead, look to the world of free software, the world of Linux and GNU, of Apache and Perl. Imagine a future in which software development is predicated on the democratic, idealistic and ultimately pragmatic notion that the best software will be created only by making the source code to software programs freely available to the general public. For free-software fighters, Apple -- the would-be giant killer, the onetime vanguard of the personal computer revolution, the Day-Glo knight in shining armor ever ready to face off against the dark forces of Windows hegemony -- is old news. Apple is history. Free software is the future.

You might expect, in the all-too-flammable environment of online discourse, that such a comment would ignite the flame war to end all flame wars. But no -- a few respondents chuckled, and a few made half-hearted claims that the next Apple operating system, Mac OS X, would reinvigorate the faithful. The dialogue was muted, in sharp contrast to the bile and histrionics that have accompanied every showdown between free-software fans or Mac devotees and Microsoft Windows defenders.

Maybe that's because the truth isn't as clear-cut as Jensen's joke suggested. It is easy to argue that Apple and Jobs have already changed the world -- that the computers the vast majority of us use look and feel the way they do because of Apple's innovations. Apple is even dabbling in free software, making portions of the code of an upcoming operating system release freely available under an "open-source software" license. Apple has also supported, albeit intermittently, efforts to rewrite Linux so that it will run on various Macintosh platforms. Most importantly, Apple and the free-software world don't see each other as natural enemies -- one deep and abiding programmer's dream, in fact, is an operating system with the power and stability of free software and the ease of use of a Mac.


But it's still worth paying attention to the free-software/Apple dynamic. Although the media and the general public fixate on setting free software, and its flag-bearing Linux-based operating system, as the ultimate opposition to Microsoft Windows, in some ways Apple provides a more compelling contrast. The Mac's strongest point, usability, is Linux's Achilles heel. Equally intriguing, the Mac -- a blend of both proprietary hardware and software -- is the polar opposite of an Intel-based PC running free software.
Apple's failure to make its operating system more widely available has often been pointed to by critics as the root cause of its early '90s downturn -- while Linux's success, so far, comes from setting the code free. While Apple has lumbered slowly forward for most of the '90s, Linux and other free-software tools have leapt forward with constant, fast-paced improvements, fueled by the energy of a soaringly optimistic and ever-growing development community.

That freedom has inspired terrific passion -- the kind of passion that keeps programmers up all night hacking code, the kind of passion that draws attention and interest, the kind of passion that used to be associated with Apple. It's passion that changes the world, not colored plastic. If the free-software hackers have commandeered the computing world's driving motivation -- the passion to remake the world in a new, improved, upgraded image -- then what does that leave for Apple?

Operating system advocacy is one of the odder manifestations of the high-strung digital age -- a truly tribal rite of geek bonding. Journalists who cover technology learn the perils of offending the faithful early and often. Whisper even the softest criticism of the Amiga or BeOS, for example, and your e-mail in box will explode with vituperation. But nobody pushes back with more intensity than Macintosh and Linux groupies.


On the surface, there even appear to be some juicy dichotomies that one could conceive generating some fireworks.

"Linux users hate Macs simply because Macs make them feel like just another person with a mouse," says Clif Marsiglio, a musician and self-described "pseudo-geek" who uses both platforms. "Mac users hate Linux because commands are purposely obscured ... The design and elegance of the Mac operating system can afford any moron to get work done in an efficient way and, if necessary, figure out what's wrong with it. This is contrary to all that the average Linux geek wants ... The geeks look at a computer as a sacred mystical tool, and use allegorical and mythical terms to describe it ... I know 'moron' and 'geek' are inflammatory terms, but they describe the target audience perfectly for each system, whether one wants to acknowledge this or not."


"All the Linux developers I know have never had much interest in the Mac," says Doc Searls, a senior editor at the Linux Journal. "It's just that they don't care. It's a toy platform, nothing serious. And it's certainly not the enemy that Microsoft is."

"Apple hasn't changed the world since the '80s," says Slashdot founder Rob Malda. "They revolutionized computer interfaces, but their stance about keeping everything they could proprietary caused them to become a permanent minority."

Macintosh users, many of whom are notoriously intolerant of "Windoze" peons -- seem to find it particularly galling that there is now a growing class of computer users who disdain them as barely computer-literate clods. And that, in turn, inspires some jabs at Linux's most notorious weak point, its complexity.


"I see Linux as irrelevant from my perspective as an advocate for everyday computer users," says Joe Ragosta, maintainer of the Complete Macintosh Page. "It's a great geek OS for people who want to be cooler than everyone else ... As such, there's no way it can compete for the average user. Heck, I've dealt with enough average users who can't figure out where the 'start' menu is, much less how to install and manage a Linux system. While the newer versions are better in this regard, they're nowhere close to the ease of use of the Mac, or even Windows."

But, to be honest, there really isn't a whole lot of bickering to be found between the Apple and Linux camps. This is partially explained by the age-old power politics that declare that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." A more pertinent question to answer, however, is why the overall flavor of Apple advocacy seems to be watered down. Unpack the Windows-Mac flame wars, and what do you find? On the Apple side, a lot of crowing over G4 processor speeds, endless discussion of relative price points for Mac hardware and Intel-chip-based computers, and praise of Steve Jobs' marketing genius.

What you don't hear is anyone babbling about how the G4 is "insanely great." The hardcore Apple fanatics believe that Jobs' "Think Different" campaign has helped turn the company around, and they are exhilarated by each new announcement of a profitable quarter. But does the sight of Einstein or Gandhi beaming from an Apple billboard inspire the masses to berserk frenzies in the same fashion as did the famous "1984" Super Bowl advertisement that depicted Apple smashing the tyranny of Big Brother IBM?


In a word, no. Today Apple is a niche player making a successful comeback. The free-software hackers have taken Apple's place -- they are the new brash guerrilla warriors lining up to swing their sledgehammers into the icon of the new Big Brother, now played by Microsoft.

"I don't think many people see Apple in the fight," says Cort Dougan, a software developer instrumental in porting Linux to the PowerPC. "The Apple-Microsoft partnership not too long ago [in which Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple] gives the view that they've been 'defeated' or 'joined Microsoft' -- to use the showdown terminology."

"Certainly I think that the open-source movement generally has taken over the mantle of being the 'ideologically pure' way to go" says Paul Mackerras, another developer helping bring Linux to the Mac platform. There are still legions of Mac fans of course ... [And it] remains to be seen what impact Mac OS X will have on this."

Mac OS X is supposed to be next major operating system release from Apple. It is also the clearest evidence, so far, that Apple is paying attention to the rise of free software. In a much trumpeted March announcement, Apple revealed that it planned to release underlying layers of the
new operating system as open-source software -- under the code name of
Darwin. But instead of choosing to create a version of the Mac operating system based on Linux, Apple announced that Darwin would be built using Linux's preeminent rival
for free-software operating system mindshare -- a variant of Unix called BSD, originally developed at the University of California, Berkeley.


"How Apple treats Darwin will, in my opinion, be the single most critical factor in the perception of Apple by both their current users and the open-source community (and developers in particular)," says David Gatwood, another software developer who has helped port Linux to the Mac platform.

BSD fans were elated -- the announcement validated their long-held and vociferously argued belief that BSD Unix is superior to Linux. Operating system advocacy never ends, even with the free-software/open-source community. Scratch a BSD user and you'll more than likely find an "old school" Unix hacker who sneeringly dismisses Linux as a sloppy security nightmare with subpar networking capabilities.

Some Linux fans, in turn, viewed Apple's announcement with the same grouchy suspicion that free-software adherents often shower on any marketing announcement from the corporate computing world. They noted that the Apple open-source license will not protect outside contributors with the same rigorousness as does the GPL license favored by Linux hackers. They accused Apple of attempting to steal open-source thunder by sucking developer energy toward Apple, away from Linux.

For years, they noted, Apple had actively supported the development of mkLinux, a version of Linux that would run on PowerPCs. But now, with the announcement of Darwin, Apple appeared to be abandoning Linux. Could this be because the company saw the fast-growing operating system as a threat to its own future profits? The first iteration of the new operating system released to the public, Mac OS X Server, appeared to be aimed directly at Linux's main stronghold -- the computer server market.


Finally, Apple's critics observed that the most valuable element in the new Mac operating system, the graphical user interface, or GUI -- the piece that would be most useful to the free-software community -- would not be open-sourced. Apple, understandably, has no plans to give away its own crown jewels.

Apple was unavailable for comment on its official position toward Linux or its plans for future free-software-related moves. The circumstantial evidence available, however, suggests that Apple's embrace of BSD is part of a natural evolutionary process for Apple, and has little to do with a nefarious plot to undermine Linux.

Apple has a long history with BSD, says Allen Briggs, a developer who helped port BSD to the Macintosh. "Apple has been using BSD code since before there were fully free versions of BSD and before Linux was developed," says Briggs.

In the late '80s, the company actively marketed its own BSD influenced version of Unix, A/UX, for the Macintosh. More significantly, Apple's 1997 purchase of NeXT, the computer company founded by Jobs after he was ousted from Apple by John Sculley, brought in an entire team of engineers thoroughly steeped in BSD code. "With the advent of [NeXT computer operating system] NeXTStep into their OS development plans, it only made sense to capitalize on the freely-available BSD code," says Briggs.


The explicit hope of Macintosh lovers looking ahead to a full-fledged consumer release of Mac OS X is that the merger of BSD and the Mac GUI will finally achieve the holy grail of computing -- a seamless mix of total power and effortless ease of use. A nice trick, if Apple can pull it off. Many free-software OS developers have the same goal, although they are hoping to achieve it with a GUI that is as good or better than the Mac interface, and still free. That fundamental similarity of basic goals, suggest some developers, should bring the Mac and free-software communities together.

"There are good reasons why there might be an affinity between the two communities," says David Huggins-Daines, a software developer who spends some of his free time attempting to hack a version of Linux that will run on older Mac 68K models. "I do see a parallel between the Macintosh experience and the Linux experience, which is that both are highly focused on promoting creative computing, i.e. the 'active' rather than the 'passive' computing experience. The difference is that the Macintosh philosophy seeks to remove technical obstacles to creativity, while the [free-software] philosophy seeks to remove political obstacles to creativity. My hope is that as GNU/Linux continues to evolve past its Unix roots, it will embrace both approaches."

"Apple is not going to take over the world," says Steven Levy, author of "Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything. "But it's still something. Mac people are still fervent, and Apple, much as it did in the last decade, is now delivering innovation again and devoting itself to exciting its fans."

"But Apple doesn't position itself as a giant killer any more," says Levy, "whereas for the open-source people, that's exactly what they see themselves as."

Has the rise of free software, suffused by an evangelistic giant-killing mind-set, leached some of the vigor from the Apple community? Most developers with roots in both communities disagree. Disenchantment with Apple from within the Apple camp resulted from the company's own home-grown mistakes, says Briggs.

Apple is now "finally showing some sense and direction after years of a kind of aimless wandering and coasting," says Briggs. "I expect that Linux hasn't sapped the devoted Apple community as much as Apple did during their wandering/coasting years."

In any case, Apple has already permanently secured its glorious place in the computing revolution, regardless of future twists and turns.

"It's true that Macs aren't about changing the world anymore -- the reason being that the world has already changed," says Tony Mantler, a fan of both Macs and Linux. "I can boot up my Mac in MacOS and use it as an almost completely transparent tool for my creativity, and I do that every day. That's what changing the world is about, and that's what makes a Mac with MacOS 'Insanely Great.'"

"How many people have had the impact on the world that Jobs has had?" asks Mac advocate Joe Ragosta. "A few thousand at most, maybe less ... Virtually every computer in the world is running Apple's OS -- although some of them are running the Windows version. Apple won in all the things that mattered as far as changing the world."

Just wait, suggests Ragosta, until the Linux community experiences its first really rough weather.

"The major difference [between Apple and Linux advocacy] is one of youth vs. maturity," says Ragosta. "Ten years ago, Mac users were energized with the passion of youth the way Linux users are today. After the bad years in the mid-'90s, we've grown up. That brings a very different perspective to things. Linux hasn't been through any hard times, yet, so they haven't faced adversity. You'd expect the advocacy to be different."

But it's not all about the naiveti of youth. Ultimately, there really is a distinction worth homing in on -- the distinction that separates closed doors from open frontiers.

One of the mottos at NeXT was the slogan "We believe that a small group of people can change the world." Fair enough, and true enough, within certain limits. But the revelation embedded in the free-software movement is that a large group of people, linked together by the Net, employing the tools provided by free software, can also change the world, a little bit at a time, on a huge, open-ended scale. As long as Apple holds on to its GUI, to its proprietary hardware and software, it will never be a true participant in that larger group, and may always run the risk of running aground when it encounters its own next batch of stormy weather.

"Linux is this decade's revolution," says John Jensen, "but to be part of it, you've got to embrace the whirlwind, you have to accept the role of being one voice among many."

For Steve Jobs and company, that would truly be thinking different.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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