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Mozilla to Apple: Show Your Hand

A Mozilla developer, currently working on the 3.0 release of the browser, raised a ruckus when he expressed some frustration in a blog post yesterday over Apple's lack of proper OS documentation.

Programmer Vladimir Vukicevic noted in his blog that once he discovered some undocumented APIs in Mac OS X, performance for the Mac version of Firefox 3 took off like a shot. This led to what he termed an inaccurate claim on the community tech site Slashdot that Apple was crippling non-Apple applications.

Other members of the Slashdot community were quick to question the accuracy of the post. Still, Vukcevic wasn't happy about the initial claim. "That post was totally inaccurate," he told InternetNews.com. "We're not going to be impeded at all. Firefox 3 will be the best browser we've delivered and the best browser on the Mac. We would just like to have better integration with OS X."

The problem, he said, is that a lot of outside developers don't seem to have access to Apple's software development platform and documentation as Apple developers do. In the case of the browser, it has unique requirements of the operating system and they could use better documentation of those APIs.

"Better documentation would be a step in the right direction. In the case where browsers are concerned, just to make sure we have the same level playing field as their own browser developers," he said.

Mike Shaver, chief evangelist for The Mozilla Foundation, also stressed that he does not feel Apple is doing anything illegal. "We're just surprised and disappointed that there are things in the OS X platform we could use to give users a better experience and we were disappointed that we were not given the opportunity to use them," he said.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment by InternetNews.com.

Shaver said Apple's position has been they don't want to make the APIs available because they may have to change them later and they don't want to break their applications. He said the Foundation will take that risk. "We'd like to make that decision for ourselves. We know our context for compatibility and the cost for making those changes," he said.

We've seen this movie before.

As Ars Technica and a few other tech enthusiast sites noted, if Microsoft pulled something like this, it would be hauled in front of a judge. As it turns out, just that has happened. Back in the Windows 95/98 era, the company was putting all kinds of undocumented interfaces in Windows.

In the mid- to late-'90s, there were whole books on the subject. Type in "undocumented windows" in a Google search and behold the results. And it's what led to the initial European Union investigation of Microsoft that is still a source of grief for the company, noted Jim Duggan, research vice president for application development at Gartner.

"Microsoft apps would always look a little snazzier because they used undocumented interfaces, but if you used them, they would change them," he said. "So from release to release, stuff would break and Microsoft would say it's not documented, it doesn't have to be stable. So the EU went after them because it was anticompetitive behavior."

Duggan believes if interfaces are being used in an operating system and by applications, then they should be published, and changes announced early so the OS developer doesn't have an advantage.

And just because Apple has a five to six percent market share, depending on IDC numbers from one quarter to the next, doesn't make it any more acceptable for Apple to behave this way, he added. "This is not how Microsoft is allowed to behave, and Apple shouldn't be allowed to behave this way, either. Can they get away with it? Probably. I haven't seen the EU stalking them," he said.