Why Greet Apple's Swift 2.0 With Open Arms?

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 when Richard 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 instead.

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 of their 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 LLVM.

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.

Posted on Monday 15 June 2015 at 12:00 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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