The battle for the desktop has turned into more of a heated argument instead of the full-on war it used to be, as Microsoft's Windows, Apple's OS X, and the Linux desktop environments have settled into more or less a state of equilibrium.

The battle for the desktop has turned into more of a heated argument instead of the full-on war it used to be, as Microsoft's Windows, Apple's OS X and the Linux desktop environments have settled into more or less a state of equilibrium.

Right now, the attention seems to be focused on the mobile platforms as the next be-all-end-all of modern technology. This is not to say that innovation does not exist on any of the desktops platforms. In fact, just the opposite is true: the changes and innovations in mobile are directly driving the innovations found in the desktop space. Thus, we have the "appification" of Window's Metro interface, or OS X Lion.

With this shift towards a new type of interface, it seems like a good idea to take stock of how open source software is faring on these new kinds of desktop systems, to see how they are adapting to the changes. With this goal in mind, I decided to take a look at the popular open source applications available for OS X, to not only highlight them as potentially great alternatives to proprietary applications for OS X, but to also see how well they work with the new Lion version of Apple's desktop platform.

Sweet suites

It's pretty much a given that the first application class that would be examined in this roundup would be the office suites that provide alternatives to Apple's iWork suite of apps and Microsoft's Office for Mac.

Office, by nearly anyone's definition, has a robust and feature-rich application set... but it's also ridiculously expensive and treats standards with barely more than a cursory nod. iWork, while less expensive, is no better as far as standards, and I have found the functionality of its applications to be limited.

In the old days, the alternative would be easy:, long the property of Sun and now swallowed up by Oracle along with its erstwhile parent. And that venerable open source office suite is still readily available for OS X. But now there's a new open office suite in the mix: LibreOffice, the fork now managed by the Document Foundation.

I have written already about the major differences between these two suites. The short version: there are no major differences. On Linux, I have found that LibreOffice edges just slightly ahead of, and that's also true on OS X Lion.

Both applications installed identically, and were up and running in just a few minutes. The only difference was's first time setup wizard, which still after all these years harkens me back to StarOffice,'s proprietary ancestor. LibreOffice has no such wizard.

Both suites render fonts within Office documents better than their Linux counterparts, primarily because OS X handles Microsoft fonts better than many Linux distros (though that is often less of a problem these days). I found that LibreOffice did at least try to open an embedded graphic in a Microsoft Word document I opened in each suite's Writer application. Writer didn't even recognise the existence of the graphic. LibreOffice Writer did, but, as you can see from the screenshots, it still completely bungled its attempt to render it.

LibreOffice doesn't do a very good job of handling this embedded object...

LibreOffice doesn't do a very good job of handling this embedded object...

...but OpenOffice doesn't even recognise that it's there.

...but OpenOffice doesn't even recognise that it's there.

These problems can be chalked up to the suites attempting to translate alien document formats. When creating images and similar features in documents in their native ODF format, however, both suites excelled (no pun intended).

Both suites integrated well with Lion, and offered full screen capability (through a keyboard shortcut and menu command). Message and dialog boxes however had the look and feel of the older Aqua interface. But functionally, there were no compatibility issues with Lion.

Band of browsers

For the ubiquitous Internet browser, again the choice was easy: match up the WebKit-based Safari against Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. All three browsers have at least roots in open source, and as you might expect that came through in how they handled pages and multimedia content. There were some notable differences.

Firefox, oddly, gave me some issues right at installation. It installed perfectly well and the first time wizard offered to import my bookmarks from Safari, but then failed to do so. Rendering was snappy and fast, though curiously the same page displayed in the same-size window showed more content than on Chrome, but less than what Safari displayed.

Firefox and Chrome render the same page somewhat differently.

Firefox and Chrome render the same page somewhat differently.

Firefox and Chrome render the same page somewhat differently.

Personas and add-ons all worked just as they do on any other Firefox installation. Tabs can be pinned as well, a feature not yet available in Safari. But Firefox does not make full use of some of the magic gesturing techniques found in Safari, and while you can full screen Firefox you have to do it via a menu command, not the expansion icon found in Safari and other native Apple apps.

Chrome behaved a little better, with imported bookmarks working fine. Curiously, the actual page-viewing real estate in the screen was smaller than in either of the two other browsers, thanks to a thicker toolbar/tab arrangement. As in Firefox, full screen can only be invoked from a menu and magic gesturing is not available.

Mail call

Using a standalone email client is not, admittedly, something that I do. I have gotten too accustomed to Gmail, frankly, and I don't really see the need for a client like Mail. I imagine you will all make fun of me when Gmail crashes hard someday, while you work with your email offline with a standalone client.

If you are using an open source email client, then you will undoubtedly be using Mozilla Thunderbird.

Like Mail, Apple's default messaging client, Thunderbird has a lot of features going for it. For instance, like Mail, Thunderbird immediately recognised the mail server for my Google Apps for Your Domain address, and even gave me the initial choice to choose between IMAP or POP3 delivery, which Mail did not.

But there were some concerns. IMAP syncing was done on a folder-by-folder basis, wile Mail just grabbed all my messages at once. Now, admittedly, Mail's methodology took forever to sync with my Gmail account. But it was more than a little frustrating to click a Thunderbird folder for the first time and then discover that its contents hadn't been downloaded yet.

For the security minded, remote content (like images) was turned off by default, something Mail left on. Filtering was easy and worked without a hitch.


By default, Thunderbird only loads remote images when you explicitly tell it to.

Thunderbird is a solid standalone mail client, but it has a generally unpolished feel, as it had no access to any of Lion's features, such as full screen mode.

Artistic flair

GIMP has long been the go-to open source program for those who need the functionality of Adobe Photoshop, which itself was once one of Mac's flagship programs. Naturally, I had to see how GIMP looks on OS X today.

There's two ways to describe GIMP on OS X, a schism brought about by the GIMP's dual nature on this platform.

First, and absolutely foremost, GIMP handled like a dream. All the functionality is there, and the application practically flew across the screen. Script-fu scripts I have used in the past worked perfectly, and there were no performance differences at all between GIMP on this or other operating systems.

But, in the aesthetic view of a long time Mac user, this is one darned ugly application.

X11 on Lion is an unusual sight.

X11 on Lion is an unusual sight.

That's because, in order to work, GIMP needs to have the X11 libraries running in the background. That means that GIMP has the look and feel of an X11 app that's been customised to look as much like Aqua as possible. While a long time Linux user like me had no problems with this, I can see where an OS X veteran might freak out a bit.

They shouldn't. As usual, GIMP is a well tuned, feature-rich app that performs very well.

Wrapping Up

There are many open source applications available for OS X, these are just the start. For now, there seems to be an effort to catch up with Lion's specific feature set, but even the apps that had a different look and feel with the interface still ran well and were very stable.

Open source, then, is evolving right along with OS X.