Is Linux Better than OS X? GNU, Open Source and Apple in History

Is Linux Better than OS X? GNU, Open Source and Apple in History

Tensions between the free software/open source community and Apple date back to the 1980s, Linux's founder called the core of Mac OS X "a piece of crap" and other anecdotes from software history.

Open source fans have long had a rocky relationship with Microsoft. Everyone knows that. But, in many ways, the tension between Apple and supporters of free or open source software is even starker—even if it receives much less attention in the press.

To be sure, not all open source advocates have an aversion to Apple. Anecdotally, I've seen plenty of Linux hackers sporting iPhones and iPads. In fact, some Linux users like Apple's OS X so much that they've created a number of Linux distributions designed to look just like it. (So has the North Korean government, incidentally.)

But relations between the Cult of Mac and the Cult of Tux—that is, the Linux community (not to mention the other, smaller segments of the free and open source software world)—have not always been completely peaceable. And that's by no means a new phenomenon, as I'm discovering as I research the history of Linux and the Free Software Foundation.

GNU vs. Apple

The ill will dates to at least the late 1980s. By June 1988, GNU, the project launched by Richard Stallman to build a completely free Unix-like operating system whose source code would be freely shared, was strongly criticizing Apple's lawsuit against Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Microsoft (MSFT) over what Apple claimed was improper copying of the "look and feel" of the Macintosh operating system. If Apple prevailed, GNU warned, the company "will use this new power over the public to put an end to free software that could substitute for commercial software."

At the time, GNU fought against the lawsuit (which meant, ironically, that GNU was supporting Microsoft, though those were different times) by distributing "Keep Your Lawyers Off My Computer" buttons. It also urged GNU supporters to boycott Apple, warning that, even if Macintoshes seemed like good computers, Apple's success in the lawsuit could provide the company with a monopoly in the market that would greatly increase the price of computers.

Apple eventually lost the lawsuit, but not until 1994, after which GNU dropped its Apple boycott. In the interim, GNU remained critical of the company. In the early 1990s, even after it began promoting GNU software programs for use on other personal computing platforms, including MS-DOS PCs, GNU affirmed that, until Apple ceased pursuing a "monopoly" over computers with user interfaces similar to those of the Macintosh, "we will not provide any support for Apple machines." (It's therefore ironic that a fair amount of the software that made it into OS X, the Unix-like operating system that Apple introduced later in the 1990s, came from GNU. But that's another story.)

Torvalds on Jobs

Despite his more laissez-faire attitude toward most issues, Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, was no less charitable in his attitudes toward Apple than Stallman and GNU had been. In his 2001 book "Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary," Torvalds described meeting with Steve Jobs circa 1997, at the latter's invitation, to discuss Mac OS X, which Apple was then developing but had not yet released publicly.

"Basically, Jobs started off by trying to tell me that on the desktop there were just two players, Microsoft and Apple, and that he thought that the best thing I could do for Linux was to get in bed with Apple and try to get the open source people behind Mac OS X," Torvalds wrote.

This courting apparently turned Torvalds off quite a bit. One point of disagreement centered on Torvalds's technical disdain for Mach, the kernel on which Apple was then building its new OS X operating system, which Torvalds called "a piece of crap. It contains all the design mistakes you can make, and managed to even make up a few of its own."

But more off-putting, apparently, was the way Jobs was approaching open source in developing OS X (which had many open source programs at its core): "He sort of played down the flaw in the setup: Who cares if the basic operating system, the real low-core stuff, is open source if you then have the Mac layer on top, which is not open source?"

All in all, Torvalds concluded, Jobs "didn't use very many arguments. He just basically took it for granted that I would be interested" in collaborating with Apple. "He was clueless, unable to imagine that there could be entire segments of the human race who weren't the least bit concerned about increasing the Mac's market share. I think he was truly surprised at how little I cared about how big a market the Mac had—or how big a market Microsoft has."

Torvalds doesn't speak for all Linux users, of course. And his views on OS X and Apple may have softened since 2001. But the fact that, in the early 2000s, the Linux community's leading figure exhibited so much disdain for Apple and the hubris of its chief says something significant about how deeply seated tensions between the Apple world and the open source/free software world are.

Both of these historical tidbits offer insight into the great debate regarding the actual value of Apple's products—whether the company thrives on the quality of the hardware and software it creates, or merely benefits from exceptional marketing acumen that allows it to sell products for much more than their non-Apple functional equivalents are worth. But I'll stay out of that debate, for now.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.