Why Apple snubs its open source geeks

Apple Computer extended the courtesy of meeting with me one day after my column on the closing of the OS X x86 kernel source code was published online.

To sum up Apple's objections, they felt I had given a year-old story a fresh coat of paint and sensationalized it for an audience that wasn't affected by it. Yet no story is more timely, or more broadly relevant, than this one.

The meeting started sliding downhill when Apple asked, "Has anybody ever written to you about this? How many people actually recompile their OS X kernels?"

I do, for one. I rattled off some of those groups that value open source in its fullest sense. I included academia, high-performance and high-throughput computing experts, and shops that want to roll in system-level enhancements before Apple gets around to packaging them.

Apple pushed back, saying that as eclectic as my readership is, the subset I described is only a "fraction of a fraction" of the geeks (Apple's word) who are my regular readers. Issues that matter to so few, and to me, shouldn't be projected to a larger audience in 48-point type. I go on the defensive whenever a vendor suggests that any portion of my readership is an underclass because of its numbers. It is our fraction of a fraction that is the bellwether for the next leading edge. My readers don't gaze at my torch or carry others'. They're too busy lighting new ones.

It strikes me as odd that anyone at Apple could fail to connect with that ideal or see its economic practicality.

Before consummate wealth and success, Steve Jobs was the poster boy for that misunderstood fraction-of-a-fraction to which my erstwhile handlers referred. Jobs was odd man out for being inventive, curious, tenacious, fearless, opinionated, and insatiable. These ingredients make an innovator. Jobs built a company, then a culture, and then a product line that reflected the future he was certain would unfold, and he was determined to get there first. Jobs had the audacity to behave as though his dreams represented the certain future, and he was blessed with just enough money, patience, and raw materials (including open source) to prove his point. Those in his employ and the tiny fraction of computer owners who were Mac users thought that innovation was a hell of a fine foundation for a company. Financial analysts were unanimous in their judgment that innovation was a fine way to take a company to hell.

The Mac platform is an overflowing basket of raw materials for innovators and creators of all stripes. It's what Steve Jobs would fantasize about if he still worked out of his garage, and you can bet that he'd be livid to find that the vendor locked some portion of his chosen platform behind a gate without a word of notice or explanation.

I'm not so much concerned about the single issue of Apple's sandbagging its open source commitment for six months (and counting). The kernel will open up again, this tempest will fade away, and I'll be glad for it. What will continue to concern me so deeply is that Apple thought it would be OK, that nobody would notice or care, if it back-burnered its commitment to keep its open source Darwin OS in lockstep and binary compatibility with OS X.

I noticed.

My story got such wide attention because lots of people -- whose numbers well exceed that fraction of a fraction who would tinker with or compile an OS kernel -- understand why breaking a promise, and saying nothing about it, matters. It's not about code. It's about character.

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