Miscellaneous Ramblings

Could DRM in Mac OS X Drive Users to Linux?

Charles Moore - 2008.01.07 - Tip Jar

Editor's note: No consumer version of the Mac OS has ever been copy protected or even required a serial number for installation, let alone included the kind of rights management software hinted at in Apple's recent patent application. dk

During the run-up to Christmas, it was variously reported that Apple Inc. has filed an updated application with the US Patent & Trademark Office for a product activation and anti-piracy technology that sounds awfully like Microsoft's execrable Windows Genuine Advantage.

Patent application 20070288886, titled "Run-Time Code Injection To Perform Checks" and dated Dec. 13, describes a "digital rights management system" that would "restrict execution of that application to specific hardware platforms."

It is further noted that if the check fails, a part of the application's execution string is disabled and the application becomes unusable - and that this scheme is designed to be implemented on Mac OS X, which is currently not copy- or DRM-protected.

The filing also explains, "In general, the selected time period should be small enough to prevent significant use of an unauthorized application or system, yet long enough so as not to degrade system performance,"

To say that I don't like the sound of this is a major understatement, and if there's anything that would drive me into the embrace of desktop Linux, DRM on the Mac OS is it. As a matter of principle, I refuse to buy any product protected by DRM unless there is absolutely no alternative for something I really need, which categorically rules out music and entertainment products - and with desktop Linux (and also desktop BSD, see below) around there are alternatives in the operating system category.

On the other hand, I'm trying to keep my powder dry and not freak out unnecessarily. Reportedly, this filing is an update and enhancement of a patent application Apple filed in 2005, so it would appear they are proceeding cautiously - and well they might. I would counsel them to apply some sober second and third thought before imposing WGA-style DRM on Mac-users.

But what if worse came to worse and Apple did implement DRM on OS X? Could I really make the transition to desktop Linux and live with it?

The Linux Philosophy

In some respects, as much as I love the Mac OS, I might be a better philosophical fit as a Linux-user.

In The Next Leap for Linux, the International Herald Tribune's Larry Magid, recently quoted executive director of the Linux Foundation, Jim Zemlin, commenting that, "For a lot of people, Linux is a political idea - an idea of freedom. They don't want to be tied to Microsoft or Apple. They want choice. To them it's a greater cause."

I'll buy that.

Philosophically and temperamentally, I'm probably more of a Linux person, albeit to date a mostly vicarious one (although I did install a couple of distros of PPC Linux on a WallStreet PowerBook a few years back to check out and experiment with), than a Mac person. While I love the Mac OS for its elegant, transparent, versatile, low-hassle user-friendliness and dependability, I'm not and never have been a big fan of what we might term "Apple culture" - and in that sense at least I'm anything but an Apple fanboy, although I'm a consummate fan of the Macintosh computer and the Mac OS.

While the Mac OS has always of practical necessity been highly compatible with other platforms, Apple products have for the most part been highly proprietary in nature. Apple has always been inclined to discourage user tinkering or even maintenance on its hardware products, and while there is a degree of Open Source tolerated in aspects of OS X (Safari, for example), the elements that distinguish it as a Mac are off limits.

And it's those uniquely Mac elements that keep me in the Mac fold and never even seriously considering, at least so far, switching to Linux or any other OS platform. While the fact that Linux is not owned, updated, or controlled by any single entity, unlike the Mac OS or Windows, appeals to me in theory, I'm not about to compromise the user experience with something I spend most of my workday closely engaged with to satisfy a philosophical ideology.

Even absent any misbegotten Apple DRM scheme, if, at some future date, "desktop Linux" were to achieve the level of elegance, Plug & Play low-hassle transparency, and software availability enjoyed by the Mac OS, I might be moved to reconsider, but that day, if it ever comes, has seemed a very long way off.

However, there might also be another non-DRM alternative to Linux

Responding to my comments on this matter in a Low End Mac news review last week, reader Jeffrey Kafer wrote:


I believe I share your distaste for Windows "Genuine Advantage" and similar technologies apparently being pursued by Apple. However, I do not think that Linux would be my first choice if I choose to move away from Apple/Mac. I'd be looking at *BSD. The top three out there are FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD. Of these, FreeBSD is the biggest. OpenBSD has a focus on highest security. NetBSD is arguably the most portable. For an Intel-based or AMD-based desktop or laptop, DesktopBSD (a user friendly FreeBSD variant) and PC-BSD (another), the *BSD users are provided ease of installation and use that rivals the many Linux distros.

As cousins of Darwin, they share a lot of its strengths. Unlike Linux, which is a kernel bundled with supporting utilities, *BSD is an integrated operating system. For those of us Mac users who work or tinker in the Mac Terminal, *BSD will is a bit more familiar. I've installed and used a couple Linux Distros (Ubuntu/Kubuntu/Xubuntu, Yellow Dog Linux, and Gentoo [my favorite so far]) but none of these have met my expectations as well as *BSD. I've tried DesktopBSD and liked it, and I currently use NetBSD on my MobilePro at work instead of running Windows CE. And, unlike Mac or Windows, current (and future?) versions of *BSD run on PowerPC, Intel, SPARC, MIPS, or many other architectures as well.

BSD is not yet as user-friendly to install or use as Linux on the Desktop, but it is closing the gap quickly and for me, the advantages make it worth my while. Therefore I recommend *BSD for your further consideration.


Thanks to Jeffrey, I now certainly would consider BSD as a Mac OS alternative if push came to shove with Mac OS DRM. I'm not a command line jock by any stretch of the imagination, so I'm wondering what's available in terms of Desktop GUIs for BSD. Application availability would be another question mark, and indeed that issue pertains to any potential move to desktop Linux as well.

For example, it would be a major trauma for me to have to learn to get along without tools like Tex-Edit Plus, TypeIt4Me, (I would include WindowShade X here, except I've been struggling along without it in Leopard for the past six weeks or so and not liking it one bit), AppleScript, iTunes, and so on and so forth. Are there reasonable facsimiles of these applications and functions available for BSD and Linux, and how well do they work?

Many imponderables and unanswered questions from my perspective, and leaving the elegant, user-friendly, "just works" Mac OS behind is not something I would take likely. It's a great facilitator of efficient workflow and such a pleasant place to be. It's really not a transition I'm enthusiastic about making in the practical context, and I profoundly hope Apple will not force my hand.

In the meantime, for those who do want to switch to, or just experiment with, desktop Linux, while I note Jeffrey's praise of the Gentoo distro, the Ubuntu distro seems to be widely acclaimed as a relatively user-friendly way to go, and a good resource to help you get up and running is Rickford Grant's Ubuntu for Non-Geeks, 2nd Edition, subtitled: A Pain-Free, Project-Based, Get-Things-Done Guidebook (currently $23.07 from Amazon.com).

Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks is a newbie's guide to Ubuntu that lets readers learn by doing, using immersion-learning techniques favored by language courses.

Step-by-step projects build upon earlier tutorial concepts, stimulating the brain and increasing the reader's understanding. The book also covers many topics likely to be of interest to an average desktop user, such as installing new software via Synpatic; Internet connectivity; working with removable storage devices, printers, and scanners; and handling DVDs, audio files, and even iPods. It also eases readers into the world of commands, thus allowing them to work with Java, Python or other script-based applications; converting RPMs to DEB files; and compiling software from source.

Ubuntu is a South African term that translates roughly as "humanity toward others," and Rickford Grant's approach to teaching Linux is to provide an understanding, patient, and genial guide to help walk you through your Linux adventure.

Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks is a project-based, take-it-slow guidebook intended for those interested in - but nervous about - switching to Linux.

Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks helps you:

  • Download and install free applications, games, and utilities
  • Connect to the Internet and wireless networks
  • Configure your hardware, including printers, scanners, and removable storage devices
  • Watch DVDs, listen to music, and even sync your iPod
  • Download photos and videos from your digital camera, then edit and share them
  • Tackle more advanced tasks as soon as you're ready

Included is a companion CD that lets you try out Ubuntu 7.04 ("Feisty Fawn") without making any changes to your computer and then install it when you're ready.

Ubuntu for Non-Geeks, 2nd Edition
A Pain-Free, Project-Based, Get-Things-Done Guidebook
by Rickford Grant
June 2007, 352 pp. w/ CD
ISBN-10 1-59327-152-2
ISBN-13 978-1-59327-152-7

A version of Ubuntu 7.04 for Power PC Mac (which supports Macintosh G3, G4, and G5 computers, including iBooks and PowerBooks) is available for free download.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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