OS X Isn't for Developers

March 10, 2011 holman

Apple had about 2.06 percent of the US desktop market in 2003. By 2010, OS X had about 10.9% of the market.1 There’s a slew of reasons for this growth, but I think a large part of it is the migration of software developers from Windows to OS X starting in the early 2000’s. Attracted by the reasonable UNIX toolchain and the straightforward usability approach, more and more geeks adopted OS X as their primary machines, saw it also doubled as a decent computer for non-techies, and its popularity grew from their recommendations.

This wasn’t just about Objective-C developers. Java, Ruby, Python, Perl, and PHP communities all found a home for themselves in OS X. That Apple provided first-class, installed-by-default support for all of those languages dramatically lowered the barriers for the technically-inclined to dabble.


A blight on this installed-by-default support is the lack of compilers on OS X. The recommended course of action is to pull out your OS X installation CD, install Xcode, and you’ll get the specialized gcc builds from Apple customized for Darwin. This, again, is not about Objective-C developers, since they will need to install Xcode regardless. This is about the rest of the language ecosystem that grew on OS X. For example, Ruby’s predominant package manager, RubyGems, can allow developers to drop down to languages like C for additional speed or functionality.

For years this blight was a pain, but bearable. If you wanted to install a gem that needed to build C extensions, you just needed to remember to find your install DVD, install Xcode, and go for it. With the growth of the internet, pretty quickly the process switched to downloading the installer from apple.com instead. That was somewhat bearable when Xcode 2.1 was less than 800MB.

Xcode 4

This week, Apple released Xcode 4. It clocks in at a 4.5GB download, and is $4.99 in the AppStore. This is the first time Apple’s charged for Xcode. It’s possible that this will change before OS X Lion ships, but it’s still a troubling prospect today.

If I want to release a great new Ruby gem that uses a C extension or library, I need to ask prospective users of that gem to:

It’s not about the money

Though I don’t think Apple should charge for Xcode, $5.00 isn’t a lot of money to Cocoa developers… I suspect most would pay a lot more. It is a lot of money to someone who just wants to try a gem, to someone who has to justify a business expense, to someone who isn’t old enough for a credit card. It’s the act of throwing up such a huge barrier to a casual, interested user that is offensive.

It’s not about the language

I bring up Ruby because I’m a Rubyist, but it doesn’t just affect Ruby developers. It affects all developers. One only needs look at Homebrew’s Formula directory to see all of the software this impacts.

The thing that kills me about this is language transfer. I like building general-purpose libraries. boom and stars, for example, can be used without any knowledge of Ruby. If someone goes outside of their comfort zone into a language they’re unfamiliar with, it’s important to make that process as smooth as possible. On OS X, it’s getting worse and worse.

It’s not about the platform

Okay, it is. It’s Apple’s fault for not including gcc by default in OS X. But what I mean by this is that this issue impacts all other platforms. As an industry, we want more people building libraries of all sorts in all languages. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting comfortably in your self-compiled BSD world using your favorite free build chains… we want every facet of our industry to be pushing the envelope. Projects in the language you don’t use may inspire you down the road to build something you would use.

By making it more difficult to ship compilable code, we miss out on faster interpreted-language libraries. We miss out on easy abstractions to rock-solid, battle-tested C libraries. We make it harder for people to dabble.


There’s three scenarios here:

It’s a frustrating position to be in. We are, of course, subject to Apple’s whims on this. Free software advocates will point out that they’ve been saying the same thing for years, and that’s true- we all give up some flexibility by being on OS X. It’s a tradeoff. What is dismaying is that, all things considered, OS X has been a wonderful boon to software development in general in the last decade. They’ve done a lot of things right. You still won’t see PHP installed on Windows any time soon.

I just hope Apple has an interest in making this decade as fruitful for software developers as the last decade. Seeing OS X dwindle as a developer platform would be such a waste.