Thursday, July 19, 2007

Apple the open source promoter

This week CNET notes that Apple has acquired the assets of the company that created CUPS, and hired its author Michael R Sweet. The acquisition actually happened in February but was not announced until last week.

For those that aren’t into printing, CUPS (Common Unix Printing System) was the first decent attempt to bring PC-quality printing features and ease of use to *nix. Sure, Unix was once great if you had a PostScript printer and a Ph.D. in computer science, but it was not something you’d give your mom to print JPEGs of her grandchildren.

With CUPS, Sweet created a modular architecture that allowed users to develop printer-specific drivers that ran across a wide range of *nix implementations. As a result, Apple adopted CUPS for OS X 10.2 and that was seen as a benefit for the CUPS community.

CUPS is also part of the reason that I’m a college professor and not a software engineering manager. Printing in OS X 10.0 was terrible — much less capable than the drivers Palomar shipped for OS 9.x. But when CUPS came to OS X, driver development not only got much easier for many printers (just write a PPD) but also the features got better too. Now I’m just a Mac user, not a Mac ISV, so a better CUPS makes my life better too.

The CUPS software will continue to be available under GPL2/LGPL2 license for other *nix implementations, a strategy consistent with Apple’s overall open source strategy. This is both a great example of both Apple’s pragmatism and a good use of sponsored open source. As with KDE (the HTML rendering engine used by Apple), Apple needs CUPS to be of good quality but is willing to share this (non-differentiating) infrastructure technology with the overall *nix and open source community.

Note to non-netheads: in the 1980s, “*nix” meant Unix, Ultrix, Unx, UTX, HP-UX or any other similar Unix derivative. It also had the meaning “I mean Unix but I don’t want to write ‘Unix is a trademark of AT&T’” I suppose today it means “Linux or its obscure, rarely-used predecessors.”

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