Proprietary Open Source: OS Development at Microsoft and Apple

Nearly three years ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates made his infamous “modern-day communists” remark about the open-source development community. Yet, just last month, the company was celebrating the fact that the Open Source Initiative (OSI) board approved the Microsoft Public License (Ms-PL) and the Microsoft Reciprocal License (Ms-RL) — on its own open-source development Web site, no less! What a difference a few years makes.

Microsoft and rival Apple are two of the largest and most well-known proprietary software companies in the world, but they’ve embraced open source to such an extent that one wonders whether or not they would even characterize themselves as proprietary companies any more.

Microsoft’s case has been of particular interest. While publicly excoriating open-source processes and products, Redmond quietly moved toward implementing OS development internally. One of the biggest results of this low-key shift has been the aforementioned Web site, called Port 25, which was launched last year to publicize the company’s commitment to open-source techniques and technologies.

Specifically, Port 25 plugs interoperability between Windows and rival operating systems such as Linux and Unix through articles and blogs. It also discusses the goings-on at Microsoft’s Open Source Software Lab, which is led by Bill Hilf, who used to be a Linux whiz at IBM but moved to Microsoft to be general manager of platform technology strategy.

If Microsoft’s approach to open source has been one of guarded and gradual progression, Apple’s has been one of unbridled enthusiasm. On the Mac OS X section of its Web site, the company states “Apple has made open source and standards a key part of its strategy.”

Much of Apple’s promotion around this popular operating system has emphasized its open-source nature — particularly Darwin, the free and open Unix-based foundation that has served as the core of Mac OS X distributions such as Puma, Jaguar and Panther. This allows for a modularized approach to adding features such as device drivers and file systems, as well as compatibility between different versions.

This attitude has been continued — and to some extent enhanced — with the release of the newest version of Mac OS X, called Leopard. In this system, the Mach kernel and related technologies have been enhanced with the intention of improving customization. This OS demonstrates Apple’s continued commitment to open source (as well as an apparent affinity for big cats).

Just to be clear, Apple and Microsoft are not by definition open-source software providers. They still sell their solutions for a profit, and the overall product suites remain proprietary.

However, it’s clear that these major players in the IT space also see the value in taking an open-source approach to development, which means their future products will likely be more flexible in their arrays of features, more responsive to market demands and more compatible with the offerings of other providers. That’s good news for organizations and individual end users.

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Brian Summerfield

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