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7/26/2006
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Open-Source Darwin Fades

According to a message posted on the OpenDarwin.org Web site, the self-named attempt to build and maintain an independent open-source implementation of the operating system beneath Apple's OS X has come to the end of its road, with some of the blame being laid squarely on Apple's doorstep. This follows on the heels of a blistering editorial in Daemon News (a BSD news site) by OpenDarwin team memb

According to a message posted on the OpenDarwin.org Web site, the self-named attempt to build and maintain an independent open-source implementation of the operating system beneath Apple's OS X has come to the end of its road, with some of the blame being laid squarely on Apple's doorstep. This follows on the heels of a blistering editorial in Daemon News (a BSD news site) by OpenDarwin team member Rob Braun, which eviscerated Apple's management of the canonical Darwin code and its own open-source efforts. No matter how you read this, this can only be bad for Apple's credibility, given the ruckus it made about open source and OS X in the product's early days.The timeline is important here, so let's do the older editorial first. Here are some of the highlights:

Once a change made it through the change control process, the change could be merged to HEAD, tagged, and submitted to the Apple build process, which usually meant your change would eventually make it into a Mac OS X/Darwin release. However, Darwin Developers could not submit to the Apple build process either. So, as a Darwin Developer, once your change made it onto a branch, that was about all you could do besides harass an Apple developer to take it the rest of the way.

Even with all these detriments, it was still possible for a determined individual to work with Apple developers and make meaningful contributions to the project. However, this was not to last. Something happened that caused Apple to get defensive and start removing some of the transparency: success. [...]

Not only did access and availability diminish, but projects started to disappear altogether. In Darwin 1.0, source to everything was included. In Darwin 1.3, some drivers started to be included without source for ppc, but the Darwin/x86 variant still had all the source available. Over time, an increasing number of drivers and other projects stopped having their source available. [...]

Even now, we are going through yet another cycle of losing access that we once had. With the release of Mac OS X for x86 processors, Apple has chosen to not release source to key components of the OS, such as the kernel and all drivers. This means Darwin/x86 is dead in the water; Darwin/ppc has many closed source components and is a deprecated architecture. One has to wonder why Apple even bothers to release non-GPL'd source at all, if it is unwilling to cooperate with external developers to increase their return on investment and accept external bug fixes and features. Even worse, one has to wonder why people would want to donate their time to such a fruitless and pointless cause.

Pretty brutal stuff... You can see why people would want to start working their own development tree--it was probably the only way to work on the code at all. And ostensibly, this is what OpenDarwin was all about--being a joint venture between Apple and the Internet Software Consortium (ISC also develops and nurtures a number of other major projects, such as the BIND DNS server and the popular ISC DHCP code).

Now for the latest OpenDarwin announcement:

OpenDarwin was originally created with the goal of providing a development environment for building and developing Mac OS X sources as well as developing a standalone Darwin OS derivative. OpenDarwin was meant to be a development community and a proving ground for fixes and features for Mac OS X and Darwin, which could be picked up by Apple for inclusion in the canonical sources. OpenDarwin has failed to achieve its goals in 4 years of operation, and moves further from achieving these goals as time goes on. For this reason, OpenDarwin will be shutting down.

Over the past few years, OpenDarwin has become a mere hosting facility for Mac OS X related projects. The original notions of developing the Mac OS X and Darwin sources has not panned out. Availability of sources, interaction with Apple representatives, difficulty building and tracking sources, and a lack of interest from the community have all contributed to this. Administering a system to host other people's projects is not what the remaining OpenDarwin contributors had signed up for and have been doing this thankless task far longer than they expected. It is time for OpenDarwin to go dark.

So that's the second attempt by the open-source community to work with Apple to end in failure, and not just a sorry-we-couldn't-work-it-out kind of ending either, but a nasty burn-your-bridges ending. This is a pretty far fall, given the kind of glowing admiration that was being expressed when Apple first began talking about open source back in 1999 (go ahead, Google for it).

I've no idea what this means for the future of Apple and open source--my Magic 8-Ball is in the shop, thankfully--but it certainly can't be good news for Apple. At the least, the ongoing collapse of the open-source developer effort threatens to remove an important arrow from their sales quiver, and at worst it raises serious questions about whether or not the company is physiologically capable of expanding beyond a high-priced boutique platform for niche environments.

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