January 15, 2002

An Open Source adventure at MacWorld

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes -

Seeing as how Apple has pinned its latest operating system to BSD Unix, I figured
there had to be at least some discussion and promotion of Open Source software at last week's MacWorld event.

Recession? What recession? Financial doomsayers might have been left scratching their heads last week while trying to figure out the massive crowds at MacWorld San Francisco. If the lines snaking outside the door, down the sidewalk and around the corner from
Moscone Center for last-minute registrations were any indication, economic recovery might be well under way.

Of course it's silly and useless to measure the state of the American economy from the crowds in attendance at a trade show, especially when it's a show for all things Macintosh. This is, after all, the largest North American gathering of people who have stood behind their favorite combination of hardware and operating system for better or worse, and for almost two decades now. The $29 price for an all-day exhibit floor pass isn't enough to make this crowd flinch.

The most intense rush of impulse attendance happened on Tuesday, the day after Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled his new iMac desk lamp and the first day the exhibit floor was open to the public. While most of the attendees were from towns and cities in the Bay Area, there were a few people who took spontaneity to entirely new heights.

Witness one Jason Gill, an unemployed Web developer from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gill said he wasn't planning on attending MacWorld this year until he saw Jobs' keynote speech -- and the new iMac -- on the nightly news.

"Macs have been a part of my life since 1984," said Gill, "so I've seen the ups and downs [of Apple]. Yeah, I think I'm immune to most of their hype. But when I saw this, when I saw the new iMac I just had to get my hands on one."

San Francisco isn't a cheap destination, something I was reminded of earlier that day when the snack bar cashier cheerfully rang up my $8 worth of food -- a can of Coke and a no-frills roast beef sandwich. So I had to ask Gill how it was that an out-of-work Web head could afford the last-minute expense of a San Francisco event.

It was expensive, he admitted, but it did help that he had "more frequent flyer miles than God" for a last-minute ticket. As for accommodations, Gill said the least expensive room he could find was "oh, out in the suburbs," meaning Sacramento. He planned to take the Amtrak Capitols train into town each day.

Now, that's loyalty to a brand name.

Once inside the subterranean exhibit halls of Moscone Center, most attendees immediately flocked to the Apple display where the company had set up about 200 of its new iMacs. Even with so many units on display, the average wait to poke, prod, and rotate the new hardware was anywhere from five to 10 minutes.

At first glance, it looks like a stiff wind or a free-range toddler could send the thing flying off a table, but that's not the case. The base is heaver than it looks, and the flat-panel display much lighter. The screen seems to be floating, helped along by a suspension system that makes turning and tilting it an effortless one-finger job.

Wasn't it only a few years ago Steve Jobs was nearly lynched by a MacWorld audience for announcing Microsoft's multi-million dollar investment in his company? Well, that was then and this is now, and one of the more popular non-Apple booths belonged to the Redmond giant. Presenters showed off the latest and greatest features of Microsoft Office for Mac OS X to overflow crowds that were blocking the aisles on all sides of the booth.

Was all forgiven? Was it now OK to like Microsoft? My questions to conference-goers in this respect were met with hostile glares or bitter laughter, suggesting that perhaps some things were better left unsaid.

OK, so Open Source was certainly not the focus of this particular event. Still, I couldn't help but think how cool that new iMac would be once I slapped a Linux distribution on the hard drive. I was also happy to find out that I wasn't alone in thinking this way, eavesdropping on more than a few conversations between conference attendees and the legions of Apple employees swarming the floor.

In a corner booth near the back of the south exhibit hall was the Linux campground. Actually, it was the
TerraSoft Solutions booth, which was made up to resemble a campsite, complete with pup tent. As Kai Staats extolled the benefits of living and working in Colorado when I interviewed him late last year, I thought the setup perfectly captured the spirit of the company.

TerraSoft's flagship product is Yellow Dog Linux, a distribution of the Open Source operating system made specifically for PowerPC processors and compatibility with Apple's line of Macintosh hardware. Sales of Yellow Dog three-CD sets and a companion book were brisk, confirmed David Gelvin, who was manning the small table when I stopped by for a chat. In fact, they were doing so well that I only
had time to fire off one question before Gelvin had to move on to a potential customer.

Why should a Mac user put Linux on his Mac, I asked? "We try to tell people that Open Source is big, that Linux has been around since 1991," said Gelvin. "OS X is fairly new to consumers, and it's only been available for a couple of years, and it may run sluggish on some older Macs, if it runs at all. Linux has been around since 1991, and gives these computers a performance boost and a life extension they might not have had otherwise."

There was more to Open Source at MacWorld than TerraSoft's display, though the "more" part didn't really happen until the last conference session on the last day of the show when 50 or so attendees stopped by room 133 for a panel talk titled "It's a Darwin World: Mac OS X and Open Source."

The discussion was moderated by FreeBSD co-founder and Apple engineering manager Jordan Hubbard, and included Internet protocol wizard Paul Vixie, Darwin developer Stan Shebs, and Apache co-founder Brian Behlendorf.

Darwin is a version of the BSD Unix operating system, and the core of Apple's commercial Mac OS X operating systems, offering networking and other services long appreciated by BSD users, along with support for Macintosh and Unix file systems. While all software built for Darwin should work with Mac OS X, not all Mac OS X software will work with Darwin, mostly those programs that depend on Apple's Cocoa and Carbon development toolkits. Darwin
and its source code are governed by the Apple Public Source License.

Starting off on the benefits of the Open Source community, Hubbard said: "When you're working for closed entities like companies and even some universities, you form little islands of developers who can't interact all that much. You can exchange email, they can flame each other, but they can't really collaborate, and Open Source has removed a lot of those barriers."

Asked what Darwin brings to the table as an Open Source operating system, Vixie replied: "For me, what Darwin brings is not so much another alternative to Linux or FreeBSD or whatever, as those systems I have that are running some Open Source BSD are likely to continue doing that. It's the fact that there is an Open Source kernel and utility suite and libraries that will support proprietary commercial
applications that I'm willing to pay for but can't run on most of my other systems."

Vixie said that he appreciated being able to run those applications but still having access to the source code of the underlying operating system. "It doesn't create a viable alternative to the other open systems, but it does create a viable alternative for the other closed ones."

The characteristically frank Vixie provided some of the most colorful and relevant comments during the discussion. When the panel was asked to contrast Darwin with Linux, Vixie's response was: "If I had wanted to run NextStep, I would have."

Indeed, a great deal of the discussion seemed to be about comparing and contrasting Darwin with Linux than debating the benefits of Darwin. When asked why Linux was so popular, Behlendorf cut through some of the rah-rah boosterism on display at the talk and got right to the point: "It's free, and it works."

Still, it does seem unfair of me to criticize the panel for sounding a bit more like cheerleaders than anything else. They do have every reason to be proud of their work and the contributions they've made to computing. And let's face it: If it weren't for cheerleading, there just wouldn't be much to MacWorld in the first place.


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