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How Does Open Source Software Stack Up on the Mac?

by Matthew Russell
07/25/2006

This overview of Mac applications could keep even the most dedicated software enthusiast busy for days. Some of them are proprietary, such as iTunes; others are pure open source. So how does Apple's software, and that of other proprietary companies such as Adobe, compare to their open source counterparts? Matthew Russell gets the conversation rolling with this extensive collection, and even assigns grades for overall categories. We know there are great apps that aren't on this list and hope that you will add the ones (in the Comments section) that you think are important. Try to include URLs if possible. So with no further delay, let's get going.

Recently on the O'Reilly Radar, it was noted that several well-known Mac folks are switching to Ubuntu Linux. One of them, Mark Pilgrim, directly juxtaposed several of Apple's stock apps to open source software (OSS) alternatives on his blog, and this got me pondering how well Apple's stock apps really stand up to some of the alternatives out there--especially from the OSS community. For that matter, how many high quality OSS alternatives are there for Mac users?

It turns out that OSS is doing amazingly well for the most part. As might be expected, there are still some gaping holes to be filled, but in many others, Apple would do well to start taking notes. I'm going to take a brief look at the landscape for some of the most common stock apps and assign each of those application categories some health grades. The more high-quality alternatives to Apple's stock apps there are, the higher we'll grade the category's health, and vice versa.

Web Browsers

The web browser arena seems to be the most natural starting point for our survey, but it's also bound to be the greatest source of contention because everyone has favorites. Fortunately, we're not here to do an exhaustive comparison of all the different web browsers out there and pick a winner. Rather, we're here to grade the overall health of the competition against Safari. It's probably no surprise to you that the competition is tough, and that means lots of great options are available.

There really are myriad choices out there, but you've no doubt already encountered the big three: Safari, Firefox (version 2 is on the way), and Camino. This doesn't look as though it will change any time soon, although various splinter groups favoring Shiira, OmniWeb, and Opera, really do seem to have strong allegiances. Notably, virtually all of the browsers available use OSS rendering engines: Firefox and Camino use Mozilla's Gecko; Safari, OmniWeb, Shiira, and many others are based on WebKit, one of Apple's open source projects, which began as a branch of a KDE's KHTML library.

There are so many alternatives to Safari (most of which are OSS) that it seems almost impossible not to be happy surfing the web on a Mac. That makes this category an easy one. Furthermore, the immense variety seems to be keeping Apple on their toes innovation-wise, so the overall health grade here is very high. (If you're one of the few unhappy surfers, why not start with this article and use WebKit to build your own browser?--and talk back at the end of this article.)

Overall health grade: A
OSS health grade: A

Mail Clients and Calendars

The variety of mail clients isn't quite as diverse as that of web browsers; standalone calendars are even harder to come by. Still, the consumer has a great deal of choice. The top dogs in this category include Mail, Thunderbird, Entourage, and Eudora. Giles Turnbull, a well-known connoisseur of mail clients, writes about a few of the most common annoyances he experiences with each of these here.

Unfortunately, the only OSS mail client of the big four mentioned above is Thunderbird, and the forums indicate that it's fairly hit-or-miss in terms of popularity. Fortunately, Thunderbird's openness empowers developers to work out its quirks on their own timelines, and there's something to be said for that. The only other blatant OSS alternative to Apple's Mail that appeared in my Google scour was GNUMail. It's designed to be a clone of Mail and appears to be chugging along at the leisurely pace to be expected of an open source project that's slightly behind the power curve. Still, if a few more developers backed it, there could be some real potential there. Its lack of integration with Spotlight and Address Book seem to be two factors that are holding it back from more widespread use.

An up-and-coming OSS competitor to iCal is Mozilla's Sunbird; Lightning is an effort to tightly integrate Sunbird into Thunderbird. If you're into running your own web server, PHP iCalendar also looks like a great option. Note also that Novell has released a port of their Evolution mail client that comes with a calendar if you've had good experiences with it on Linux and want to try it on OS X.

With all of the hype about GMail and Google Calendar lately, it hardly seems fair to leave them out of this survey. Even though they're not conventional desktop applications, they look and feel pretty darn close to conventional apps, they're free and continue to be hacked creatively, and in several respects, they're directly competing with Apple's .Mac service.

Before Ajax-enabled applications really started to take off, it was a bit harder to imagine web apps being the wave of the future. Google sure has come a long way in showing us just how sophisticated they can be. Can you live in web apps alone?

There doesn't seem to be quite as much OSS competition with mail clients as with web browsers, but we're a long way from being locked into Apple's Mail. Hopefully, that competition will continue to fuel improvements all around. Since so many OSS alternatives seem to be on par with, or better than, Apple's Mail, this category's health seems high. The only thing really holding it back is that there aren't more direct competitors to Apple's iCal.

Overall health grade: B
OSS health grade: B-

Multimedia Players

This category, unlike the previous two, is a bit of a conglomerate because there's not really a "one size fits all" core app for playing multimedia on the Mac. Folks normally play their music in iTunes, their DVDs in DVD Player, and use QuickTime for a variety of other tasks along the way. Therefore, instead of trying to do a direct Apples-to-apples comparison, we'll do more of a bucket-to-bucket comparison. Keep in mind that DRM makes this category a little less flexible than it otherwise might be.

The two readily available OSS multimedia player alternatives appear to be VLC and MPlayer. They're both incredibly popular; play music, DVDs, and videos; support virtually every codec you can imagine; and are both actively developed. Accounts indicate that at one point VLC could even play your iTMS DRM'd audio. Unfortunately, this capability appeared largely to depend on the state of the hymn project, which seems to be more or less a cat-and-mouse game with Apple. (As of this writing, Apple is winning.)

Figure 1
Figure 1. VLC may not play your iTMS-protected audio, but it can do just about everything else.

Another application you may want to be aware of in the multimedia arena is MacTheRipper, which is based upon the open sourced libdvdread and libdvdcss libraries and allows you to extract and back up the DVDs you own. Speaking of ripping, if you don't like the way iTunes rips your CDs, you can always try a tool like cdparanoia from Fink.

It's worth noting that even though the actual QuickTime libraries are about as proprietary as anything can be, Apple has made available a very rich API that developers can leverage to do anything the QuickTime Player can do. Additionally, the QuickTime Player's AppleScript support gives you quite a bit of flexibility even though you don't have the source.

Amateur builds upon this foundational API and lauds itself as an "uncrippled QuickTime Player." Incidentally, this project was started by someone who was irritated to discover that upgrading to Tiger caused QuickTime Pro 6 functionality to fail. Amateur has a long way to go but appears to be a solid start that may mature in time.

If you don't own a lot of iTMS-purchased media, you have several great options for multimedia players and related paraphernalia. Still, we face a quirk in this category: owning a lot of DRM'd media really does narrow your options, and let's face it--that's what Apple wants. The more you use iTunes, the more likely you are to purchase items from iTMS and stay locked in to iTunes. Hopefully, the future will broaden the possibilities.

Assuming you aren't "locked in" to iTunes for your DRM'd media, you're probably pretty happy with your choices. If you have purchased a lot of media through iTMS, you must be incredibly content with iTunes or incredibly frustrated. Why not share your thoughts with a comment at the end of this article?

Overall health grade: A- (but maybe a D+ if you own a lot of iTMS DRM'd media)
OSS health grade: A- (ditto)

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