Last week Apple’s open sourcing of Swift naturally saw the spotlight thrown over Apple’s open source pages. This included a paragraph that claimed Apple was “the first major computer company to make Open Source a key part of its strategy”. Unsurprisingly, this riled some members of the developer community as being disingenuous and untrue.
So Apple has since changed the text to retract the rather outlandish statement with something a bit more muted. Although this statement is technically qualitative and open to many interpretations, Apple isn’t exactly known for its open source contributions. The page now reads as follows:
‘Open source software is at the heart of Apple platforms and developer tools, and Apple continues to contribute and release significant quantities of open source code’.
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The claim has been posted on Apple’s site for some time, but received fresh attention last week following the Swift release.
Whether Apple was right or wrong in what is said is actually hard to ascertain. It is true that Apple has maintained open source releases of UNIX all the way back to OS X 10.0 and now manages a host of open source projects including Bonjour, ResearchKit and perhaps most famously WebKit. However, Apple is not the best open source citizen in any of these cases. Apple is slow to release source code in many instances and often holds back code for a big ‘dump’ once the software has shipped, often weeks or months later. Case in point: Apple has not yet released the open-source elements for OS X 10.11 which was released in September.
These kind of ‘code bombs’ are frowned upon as being bad practice for open source, which is part of the reason people rejected Apple’s ‘open source first’ messaging so strongly. Open source advocates want public codebases to be more community oriented, with daily commits being published as the project progresses.
This is exactly how Swift is governed; WebKit is now on this path too although it wasn’t initially. Nowadays, LLVM, WebKit and (looking ahead) Swift mean that Apple is spearheading open source development in a big way. The written claim mentioned Apple’s historic approach to open source however, where the record is not as concrete.
Regardless of subject matter, claims about being the ‘first’ of anything are going to be controversial without sufficient evidence. The open source scene is so widespread and distributed that Apple’s best option was to change the phrasing, even if they believed it to be true themselves, to quell the criticism.