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How Does Open Source Software Stack Up on the Mac?
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Source Code IDEs

If you're developing Cocoa applications, Apple's Xcode is almost impossible to live without (doesn't seem like vendor lock-in is quite so bad for this category, does it?). For other types of application development, however, there are adequate alternatives. Eclipse aims to "provide a universal toolset for development" and given the multitude of different plugins, it really seems to be living up to that mantra. NetBeans, a well-known Java IDE, has a famed GUI creator, and of course, there's the usual Vim (with exuberant ctags) and Emacs crowd who pull out their Swiss army knives to get the job done.

All in all, Xcode and Eclipse (with all of its plugins) can take you a long way, but if you're looking for more specialized support, you may have to shell out a few bucks. Affrus is a Perl IDE and Komodo hails itself as "the killer IDE for dynamic languages." Of course, some would say that you don't need a fancy IDE for anything at all--especially dynamic languages such as Perl and Python. You be the judge.

This category is somewhat special because you can only get so far away from the hand that feeds you. If you're a Cocoa developer, that hand is, more likely than not, Apple's development software. Sure, Xcode has its own problems, but what would it really be like developing native Cocoa apps without it? (If you've done so, please share your experiences with a comment below.) Of course, the very nature of Java gives its developers high-quality, cross-platform apps that they can take with them. The availability of Java-based IDEs and old-school tools such as Vim and Emacs keep the health looking strong in this category.

Overall health grade: B+
OSS health grade: B

Other OSS Odds and Ends

  • iTerm delivers tabs and a few other features that Terminal is still missing.
  • Audacity is a great sound editor.
  • S5 is a neat little system for making slides.
  • Nvu is worth looking at if you don't want to pay for DreamWeaver or RapidWeaver.
  • Blender is a great 3D-modeling toolkit.
  • The pygame toolkit has made a lot of open source games possible.
  • Cyberduck is a great FTP and SFTP client.
  • Jumpcut is an amazing clipboard buffering app that lives in your menu bar.
  • Desktop Manager brings multiple desktops to OS X and delivers awesome transitions that leverage OpenGL.
  • MySQL and PostgreSQL are OSS industrial-strength databases.

Thumbnail, click for full-size image.
Figure 8. iTerm adds tabs and bookmarks to your terminal sessions (Click for full-size image).

There weren't any open source sticky-notes applications to be found, but there's a sample project of Stickies as a CoreData example that comes with the developer tools. There isn't much in the way of OSS Finder alternatives out there either, but some folks swear by (and pay for) Path Finder. Xfolders is a free file manager that supplements the Finder.

Would you grade categories differently? If so, how? What about assigning an overall health grade measuring how well the OSS competition stacks up against an out-of-the-box machine? Should Apple be doing more to push out higher-quality stock apps? What about bundling more OSS with their machines? What did I leave out that you would have included? Please, talk back below and tell us all about it.

Matthew Russell is a computer scientist from middle Tennessee; and serves Digital Reasoning Systems as the Director of Advanced Technology. Hacking and writing are two activities essential to his renaissance man regimen.

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  • Why reinvent the wheel?
    2006-07-25 18:04:22  dogzilla [View]

    What I don't understand is...if the overwhleming majority of us are already using the excellent apps that come with a Mac to do these jobs, why mess with generally inferior OSS apps to do the same? What I would find really interesting is some information on OSS apps that do something unique for which we *don't* already have an Apple or commercial app that does the job better. I'm sure there are many OSS tools that fit this description. (eg: Platypus -
    • Matthew Russell photo Why reinvent the wheel?
      2006-07-25 18:56:36  Matthew Russell | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

      Well, personally, I don't totally agree with your assumptions. Namely, that *most* of the apps that come with a Mac are *excellent* and that OSS is generally *inferior*. But even if that were the case, what about cases in point like Firefox and Adium? Firefox has no doubt Kept MS and Apple on their toes by innovating and raising the bar in ways that may not have otherwise been done.

      If I were a betting man (and I am sometimes), I'd bet that iChat will soon have tabbed chats, give you chat history, and possibly even start to weave in other accounts from Yahoo, etc. If I'm not mistaken, gaim was among the first to introduce these features and they really caught on. Why hasn't Apple released an update that takes care of these features? In my mind, no chat client could be *excellent* without them.

      So the point is that if a vendor has the market locked in there's *generally* much less of an incentive to innovate, be creative, and keep growing the application in exciting ways. This concept is analagous to free market economics. More choice == more power for the consumer.

      But I do agree that another survey on creative software (OSS or not) would be very interesting.
      • Why reinvent the wheel?
        2006-07-25 22:38:29  dogzilla [View]

        Well, I agree with you on Firefox. However, I can't agree where any of the other categories covered in this article are concerned. I just don't think any of the other chat clients are as unobtrusive and feature-rich as iChat (ex: my mother uses iChat to videoconf with my kids. No OSS client could do that, imho). While I agree that some OSS apps have (in the grand scheme of things) really minor features that I'd like, there just isn't anything out there that compares to iTunes/ITMS, iPhoto, iMovie, Garageband, and iDVD. Maybe the most compelling measure of these apps is that - even with the tiny amount of free time I have - I've used all of these apps for multiple projects (usually a birthday or christmas gift of some kind).

        As for tabbed chats: I use Chax ( So should Apple incorporate these into iChat thereby "stealing" the idea and "crushing another small developer" as they were accused of doing with widgets?
        • Matthew Russell photo Why reinvent the wheel?
          2006-07-26 04:25:51  Matthew Russell | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

          Apple certainly does to a nice job on UI. Still, I can't imagine how you can reason that not having more choice ("inferior" -- in your own words -- or not) can't be a good thing. You sound as though OSS just junks up the internet like litter along side the road or something. My main point is that even if you dont' like *any* of the OSS alternatives out there that just the sheer fact that there are alternatives to the status quo is a good thing because it forces Apple to adapt in ways it might not otherwise adapt, and (perfect interface or not) it shifts the power a little bit. (Slightly off topic, but you realize Darwin, the base of OS X, is OSS, right?)

          As for the tabs with Chax -- I don't think tabs are an idea that you can "steal", at least not in the sense of the way we use them in our browsers, the way Adium uses them in chats, etc. Tabs are more of a UI feature that are generic enough that virtually any app could make use of them. i.e. I don't think comparing Apple incorporating tabs into iChat is comparable with Apple incorporating DashBoard into their latest OS.

          In fact, I think that Apple's credibility depends on having apps like DashBoard ship with OS X, incorporating tabs into iChat and otherwise staying on top of their game -- not because of something specific about DashBoard or iChat, per se, but because they need to stay on par with what other apps offer in terms of features in an out-of-the-box configuration. Otherwise, they're going to be peddling outdated software that actually depends on (potentially unsupported) 3rd party components to be competitive.
          • Why reinvent the wheel?
            2006-07-30 12:36:42  dogzilla [View]

            You are reframing my post as an OSS vs. the world debate, which I'm frankly not interested in having. You should always shy away from phrases like "You sound as if..". And yes, I'm quite aware that Darwin is the underlying core of OSX. Are you aware of the current hits Apple is taking from OSS advocates / Tom Yager on the supposed closing of Darwin?

            Thinking that OSS is what drives Apple to innovate seems a bit specious to me. Apple was driving innovations in the computer market well before the concept of Open Source had any kind of widespread traction. I feel pretty confident in stating that if every OSX open-source app dropped off the radar tomorrow, Apple would continue improving it's home-grown apps. Perhaps even adding tabs to iChat.

            While I disagree that simply having alternatives does anything to affect a given market (eg: having Yugos available does nothing for the innovations in Minis, even though they're both compact cars), that wasn't the point of my post in the first place. My point was: why include all of these me-too OSS projects that are doing little or nothing to drive their particular categories forward while glossing over the large number of OSS apps and tools that provide unique functionality readers may not even know are available.

            As for tabs being a unique feature: I think an argument could be made there, but again, that wasn't really my point. My point was that there is already a 3rd-party solution from a small developer that offers this. Apple may be making a conscious decision to *not* include them and crush the small 3rd-party developer. Especially since they've been accused of doing just that in the past. Ultimately Apple doesn't really need to continue updating programs like iChat, iPhoto, et. al. to be cutting edge tools. These tools are designed to be given away, remember.
            • Matthew Russell photo Why reinvent the wheel?
              2006-07-30 14:33:16  Matthew Russell | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

              Hey, I thought some of our discussion was interesting enough that I pulled and merged some of the ideas together into a separate blog entry. I hope you don't mind...

              • Why reinvent the wheel?
                2006-07-30 20:09:33  dogzilla [View]

                Heh. Just opened up my RSS reader and the article was the first item. Cool. And I agree with you - this is an interesting discussion that touches on a bunch of other important (well, I think they're important anyway) points.

                I'm interested to see the comments from others and to bask in my chance to be famous for 15 people.
            • Matthew Russell photo Why reinvent the wheel?
              2006-07-30 13:18:10  Matthew Russell | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

              My point was: why include all of these me-too OSS projects that are doing little or nothing to drive their particular categories forward while glossing over the large number of OSS apps and tools that provide unique functionality readers may not even know are available.

              Well, I do think that an article on the "large number of OSS apps and tools that provide unique functionality" would be a fine endeavor. The reason this particular piece looked at the apps you claim are doing "little or nothing to drive their particular categories forward" is because I disagree with the premise of that very statement. I do think that OSS apps, even if they're not developed by Apple's very own software engineers, do make a difference. And personally, just having options means a lot to me. I typically frame problems in terms of incentive (if there is a strong enough incentive for doing something, it'll get done -- otherwise it probably won't) and I'm excited about how OSS is capable of fueling that fire. Sure, maybe some of these apps aren't doing much "right now" but at one point Linux wasn't doing much either. Now look at where it's at. That's just one example. The Gimp isn't "all that" in my book, but I sure would prefer to use it (for free) than dishing out hundreds of bucks for more of Adobe's stuff that I probably don't need anyway. It had pretty humble beginnings too...and yes, I realize we're getting off topic again but just a couple more things...

              Apple may be making a conscious decision to *not* include them and crush the small 3rd-party developer...Ultimately Apple doesn't really need to continue updating programs like iChat, iPhoto, et. al. to be cutting edge tools.

              If Apple's incentive becomes strong enough, I'll just go out on a limb and say that they will "crush" any developer that threatens their own applications by integrating whatever features they need to -- it's their responsiblity to their share-holders to do so. Apple is in the money making business, not charity work. I think it's great that they don't scoop up every little developer's project and wrap it up into their own little Cupertino empire, but if their incentive became strong enough to do so in certain circumstances, I don't think they'd even hesitate.

              Besides, it just doesn't make sense to me to think that AIM and all sorts of other chat clients will one day have tabs, but Apple will hold back for fear of crushing a small developer. While I would applaud the self-restraint, the realist in me says that at some point, they're not going to be able to have a state-of-the-art chat client without tabs or a better way of managing multiple sessions at once. Sooner or later, they will do something. Even those these apps are "designed to be given away", I still think that Steve Jobs is anal enough to want them to be the best there is, and that even if that weren't the case, it's still Apple's responsibility to try and make them that way.

              I disagree that simply having alternatives does anything to affect a given market

              I couldn't disagree more, but since you've noted that a lot of what we're talking about didn't have much to do with your original point (which was a good one), I won't bother trying to cook up a discussion about economics here, but I will say that it just seems pretty self-evident to me that having options is always a good thing and that it is usually those options that drive competitiveness in a market -- which drives innovation and creates a win for the consumer.

              Again, your original point quoted at the top of this node is very well taken. A lot of other stuff just came up in our discussion that I thought was interesting enough to continue talking about even though it was "off topic." I obviously find the economics of the software market to be a very interesting topic...
  • Don't forget ...
    2006-07-25 17:39:32  Chris_ [View]

    ... jEdit (text editor/IDE) and Proteus (multi protocol IM client, planned to become open source, too).
  • VirtueDesktops
    2006-07-25 16:16:54  adindb [View]

    You missed the great VirtueDesktops, which takes the DesktopManager code and runs with it.
  • Skype?
    2006-07-25 15:47:12  StLouisian [View]

    Didn't know Skype is OSS?
    • Matthew Russell photo Skype?
      2006-07-25 16:07:18  Matthew Russell | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

      Skype is definitely not OSS. (That sentence should not include the "OSS" term.) Good catch.

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