“Do you want hemlock, or will a cyanide capsule do?”
That was Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson’s response to a question being debated in the Linux blogosphere in recent days. Specifically, is Apple or Microsoft worse for FOSS?
Cupertino was the choice of Alastair Otter, the blogger who originally raised the question on South Africa’s MyBroadband blog.
“Apple is an even bigger threat” than Microsoft, Otter asserted. “Not only to free software but to many other freedoms: the freedom to use the platform you want, the freedom to use the applications you want, the freedom to listen to the music you want to.”
‘What a Crud Article’
Of course, this is the Linux blogosphere, where diverging opinions are never in short supply. In this case, “fast and furious” might be an apt description for the rate at which the comments flew forth.
“What a crud article,” wrote surfs-up, for example. “Things are done for a reason — Apple has valid reasons for their approach, and it is this approach that has led me to have utmost faith in their products.”
Similarly, “Apple’s restrictive policies on the App store are in the interest of security, compatibility and ease of use,” agreed Synaesthesia. “So far it’s been a huge success, by far the best platform to develop for commercially.”
Then again: “Apple have always controlled the hardware AND the software,” shot back Cat011. “That’s WAY worse than anything MS have done.”
Like a dark, roiling oil slick, the conversation soon spread to LXer and beyond.
Linux Girl had been wondering why her Debate-o-Meter kept going off during the night. Now she knew why. Bleary-eyed, she stumbled down to the Hot Java diner for some caffeine — and some more insight.
Are Apple and Microsoft really like deadly poisons to FOSS?
Have Some ‘iFUD’
“Okay, it’s not quite that bad — it’s more like, ‘the bad news is we’ve eliminated your parking spot; the good news is that you won’t need it because you’re fired,” Hudson, who goes by “Tom” on Slashdot, told Linux Girl. “You’ll survive, but it still sucks.”
Neither company is going to embrace FOSS, but “lately Apple has even managed to outdo Microsoft with their own brand of ‘iFUD’,” Hudson asserted. “Look at the mess with the patent-encumbered h264 codec and the html5 standard.”
Microsoft at least “lets people install whatever software they want in conjunction with their products (flash), and use their software on the hardware of your choice (certain exceptions apply, YMMV, virtualization, yadda yadda yadda),” she noted.
Indeed, “is there even a contest?” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet exclaimed. “Apple wins that hands down! Why? Because with MSFT you can still run FLOSS applications — in fact I myself do all the time — whereas with Apple it is strictly Steve’s walled garden.”
‘What of Open Sourced Darwin?’
The biggest threat of the day is Apple, “for their support of H.264 over Ogg Theora for HTML5 video,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza opined. “But in general, Microsoft is the larger threat today, simply because they are larger.
“On the other hand, I’ve long said that life under the dominion of Microsoft is likely preferable to life under Apple,” Espinoza added. “That presumes the existence of Apple, but it doesn’t make me want to buy their products.”
Indeed, “that Microsoft is bad for Linux and FOSS there is no doubt, but Apple is far worse,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack asserted.
“What of their promise for open sourced Darwin?” Mack pointed out. “Gone when The Steve realized that people could do things that didn’t suit him. Don’t even get me started on that patent they have that could be nicely rephrased as, ‘Using a Multitouch for exactly what it was designed for’.”
‘Flip a Coin’
Had the question been asked years ago, “I would have said Apple was the better of the two, given their past (and current) involvement in open source,” blogger Jeremy Visser began. “However, recent trends with some of the most locked-down systems from a DRM standpoint available to consumers today — like the iPhone and iPad — lead me to believe Apple isn’t interested in open source per se. It’s only interested when it suits them.”
With the iPhone and iPad, “Apple has created the most developer-hostile platform I’ve ever seen,” Slashdot blogger David Masover agreed. “Microsoft, on the other hand, has deliberately gone after open source, claiming they own patents on Linux, funding SCO, etc.
“Basically, the more market share Apple gains, the worse it will be for open source, but that’s a side effect,” Masover added. “Microsoft actually seems to want open source to go away. That’s the only real difference I see.”
In other words, “take your pick, or flip a coin,” he added.
‘Two Heads of the Same Beast’
Then again: “Why should we choose one as the lesser evil?” asked blogger Robert Pogson. “They are two heads of the same beast.
“Until they set the police on Gizmodo, I was willing to give Apple a break,” Pogson added. “No longer. They have no excuse for these bullying tactics. Boycott the both of them.”
In fact, “the single biggest threat to open source is, and always has been, consumer apathy and laziness,” Masover asserted. “If you’ve bought an iPhone, you are voting with your dollars for a platform which is about as anti-open source as you can get. Apple is responsible, but so are you.”
‘We Can Still Cherry-Pick’
Apple, Microsoft and Google each show a different pathology in today’s marketplace, Hudson asserted: “Microsoft wants to own the market, Apple wants to own the user, and Google wants to own the data. Oh, and Facebook now wants to own your friends.”
Fortunately, “as long as Microsoft, Apple and Google are credible threats to each other, the end-user has some leverage,” she added. “We can still cherry-pick, instead of having to drink the kool-aid.”
FOSS, meanwhile, is now “getting into more consumers’ hands the way that Apple got more computers into people’s homes: via portable devices,” Hudson said. “For Apple, it was the iPod and the iPhone. For Linux, it’s the newest generation of smartphones that are iPhone/iPad killers (Hello, Evo 4g :-).”
A ‘Chicken-and-Egg Problem’
In the end, “I think it’s important that FOSS developers maintain the realization that proprietary and open source software cannot coexist peacefully,” Visser opined. “This is why projects such as GNOME, KDE, OpenOffice.org, and of course desktop-oriented Linux distributions such as Ubuntu or Fedora are so important — because they compete in the exact areas in which there is the most vendor lock-in.”
It’s a “chicken-and-egg problem,” Visser concluded. “Developers need to avoid taking the bait and stop writing software for users using proprietary platforms,” he asserted.
“As Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,'” he pointed out. “We need more development opportunities for open platforms. Perhaps a more apt quote is, ‘if you build it, they will come.'”