Monday 15 June 2015 by Bradley M. Kuhn
Apple announced last week that its Swift programming language — a currently fully proprietary software successor to Objective C — will probably be partially released under an OSI-approved license eventually. Apple explicitly stated though that such released software will not be copylefted. (Apple's pathological hatred of copyleft is reasonably well documented.) Apple's announcement remained completely silent on patents, and we should expect the chosen non-copyleft license will not contain a patent grant. (I've explained at great length in the past why software patents are a particularly dangerous threat to programming language infrastructure.)
Apple's dogged pursuit for non-copyleft replacements for copylefted
software is far from new. For example, Apple has worked to create
replacements for Samba so they need not ship Samba in OSX. But, their
anti-copyleft witch hunt goes back much further. It began
Stallman himself famously led the world's first GPL enforcement effort
against NeXT, and Objective-C was liberated. For a time, NeXT and
Apple worked upstream with GCC to make Objective-C better for the
community. But, that whole time, Apple was carefully plotting its escape
from the copyleft world. Fortuitously, Apple eventually discovered a
technically brilliant (but sadly non-copylefted) research programming
language and compiler system called LLVM. Since then, Apple has sunk
millions of dollars into making LLVM better. On the surface, that seems
like a win for software freedom, until you look at the bigger picture:
their goal is to end copyleft compilers. Their goal is to pick and choose
when and how programming language software is liberated. Swift is not a
shining example of Apple joining us in software freedom; rather, it's a
recent example of Apple's long-term strategy to manipulate open source
— giving our community occasional software freedom on Apple's own
terms. Apple gives us no bread but says
let them eat cake
Apple's got PR talent. They understand that merely announcing the
possibility of liberating proprietary software gets press. They know that
few people will follow through and determine how it went. Meanwhile, the
standing story becomes:
Wait, didn't Apple open source Swift
anyway?. Already, that false soundbite's grip strengthens, even though
the answer remains a resounding
No!. However, I suspect that
Apple will probably meet most
public pledges. We'll likely see pieces of Swift 2.0 thrown over the
wall. But the best stuff will be kept proprietary. That's already happening
with LLVM, anyway; Apple already ships a no-source-available fork of
Thus, Apple's announcement incident hasn't happened in a void. Apple didn't just discover open source after years of neutrality on the topic. Apple's move is calculated, which led various industry pundits like O'Grady and Weinberg to ask hard questions (some of which are similar to mine). Yet, Apple's hype is so good, that it did convince one trade association leader.
To me, Apple's not-yet-executed move to liberate some of the Swift 2.0 code seems a tactical stunt to win over developers who currently prefer the relatively more open nature of the Android/Linux platform. While nearly all the Android userspace applications are proprietary, and GPL violations on Android devices abound, at least the copyleft license of Linux itself provides the opportunity to keep the core operating system of Android liberated. No matter how much Swift code is released, such will never be true with Apple.
I'm often pointing out in my recent talks how complex and treacherous the Open Source and Free Software political climate became in the last decade. Here's a great example: Apple is a wily opponent, utilizing Open Source (the cooption of Free Software) to manipulate the press and hoodwink the would-be spokespeople for Linux to support them. Many of us software freedom advocates have predicted for years that Free Software unfriendly companies like Apple would liberate more and more code under non-copyleft licenses in an effort to create walled gardens of seeming software freedom. I don't revel in my past accuracy of such predictions; rather, I feel simply the hefty weight of Cassandra's curse.
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