What is Mac OS X?

© Amit Singh. All Rights Reserved.Written in December 2003

Available Software on Mac OS X

One relatively common notion about Mac OS X seems to be that there's not a lot of software for it. While it is true that the quantity of software available for Mac OS X is not as large as, say, that on Windows or Linux, I believe the software that does exist for Mac OS X provides you as much functionality, if not more, as software on any other platform.

Mac OS X has constantly been improving its support of "alien" APIs and frameworks. The introduction of a native X Window System is an example (although there were non-Apple ports of XFree86). Projects like Fink (see below) have helped a great deal in facilitating easy availability of open source software on Mac OS X. In my opinion, at this point, the concern that Mac OS X doesn't have 191,700 packages/libraries available is largely unwarranted, as long as existing software's functionality matches that of other platforms.

A glaring exception is games (see below), where Mac OS X is lacking in comparison to Windows.

Bundled Software

Apple includes a phenomenal amount (and quality) of software with Mac OS X. You can refer to the Mac OS X Technical Specs for details of included software.

It's not just the quantity, or even quality, of software that makes Mac OS X a highly productive and usable platform: the entire system has a uniform look and feel, applications are very nicely integrated with each other as necessary, and things mostly happen as you would expect.

Moreover, Apple has tried to extensively leverage a large amount of existing open source software, as is evidenced by the numerous open source packages that constitute the Darwin technology umbrella.

Open Source Software


As stated in Architecture of Mac OS X, Darwin critically relies on a lot of open source software for functionality and features. Apache, bind, binutils, cvs, gcc, gdb, pam, perl, postfix, python, rsync, samba, etc. are only some of such packages. Moreover, Apple has integrated many of these software pieces with their platform, and has provided user interfaces that try to make configuration and use of such software easy and seamless.


The Fink project makes available a large set of Unix open source software on Mac OS X. The fink tool (written in Perl) uses Debian package management tools (dpkg, dselect, and apt-get). If you need, for example, the text-based web browser lynx, you can always download the source and compile it, which may work "out-of-the-box" for many packages, but not for many others. Fink takes care of such porting issues, dependencies, version updates, etc. For example:

% sudo apt-get install lynx Password: Reading Package Lists... Done Building Dependency Tree... Done The following NEW packages will be installed: lynx 0 packages upgraded, 1 newly installed, 0 to remove and 0 not upgraded. Need to get 1329kB of archives. After unpacking 0B will be used. Get:1 http://us.dl.sourceforge.net 10.3/release/main lynx 2.8.4-12 [1329kB] Fetched 1329kB in 5s (221kB/s) Selecting previously deselected package lynx. (Reading database ... 7563 files and directories currently installed.) Unpacking lynx (from .../lynx_2.8.4-12_darwin-powerpc.deb) ... Setting up lynx (2.8.4-12) ...

You can use the fink list command to see the list of packages currently supported by fink. Version 0.6.2 lists over 1100 packages (including various versions of certain packages)! Moreover, you can choose to download and install pre-compiled (binary) packages, or download the source (including Mac OS X specific patches, if any) and compile it. Heck, it's easier to get certain Open Source packages up-and-running via fink than, say, on Red Hat Linux (xv, for example).

Finally, a very nice approach taken by fink is that it does not pollute the rest of the system - it installs everything under the /sw directory.

Other Port Collections

Darwin Ports and GNU-Darwin are also open source port collections for Darwin/Mac OS X.

Random Open Source Software

There is plenty of open source software (possibly arcane or esoteric, but not always) that's not provided by fink. It should be easy to compile it from source, provided it's reasonably standard *nix source. There are some provisions to make portability easier: the dlcompat library (a non-Apple library providing a subset of the dlopen/dl* API), System V IPC support, <poll.h>, <sys/aio.h>, etc.


OpenOffice (X11 based, not native) is available for Mac OS X. KOffice is also an option.


The Macintosh platform has historically had an active "shareware" community. You can browse a large number of shareware software packages available for Mac OS X on web sites such as VersionTracker, MacUpdate, osx.hyperjeff.net/Apps etc. In addition to shareware, these sites also "track" other kinds of "free" software, as well as commercial software.

VersionTracker also tracks software for other platforms (Mac OS 9, Windows, and Palm OS).

Commercial Software

A lot of commercial software is available for Mac OS X. If you need it, and if you can afford it, you will find plenty of applications to suit a variety of needs. In fact, the kind of commercial software that is available is one key factor that makes Mac OS X the most unique operating system currently.

A Sampling of Available Software

This section lists some examples of important, interesting, or commonly used software available for Mac OS X. This is not a complete list by any means, and there are many more "important" applications that I have not listed. I have categorized the software according to its domain of application, rather than as commercial, shareware, freeware, open source, etc.

For a much more comprehensive list of available software for the Mac, please refer to Apple's Software Guide.


Apple has tried hard to make Mac OS X an excellent platform for various kinds of software development. Apple's developer tools are very good, and you also have other options, such as CodeWarrior). What's more, a large number (if not most) of open source compilers, interpreters, tools, and libraries should be usable on Mac OS X.

More details of programming options on Mac OS X were discussed in a previous section (Programming on Mac OS X).

Graphics, Media, and Publishing Software
Instant Messaging Clients

A number of other open source and/or shareware messenger clients (including multiple-protocol clients and IRC clients) are available. You can visit the VersionTracker site for more details.

Mail Clients
Media Players
Networking/Connectivity Software
Office, Productivity, and Information Management Software
Sherlock and Watson

Sherlock (or its 3rd party counterpart, Watson) is a remarkably useful tool that you have to use to appreciate. The idea is to present useful information (movies, phone book, TV listings, recipes, dictionary, exchange rates, stock quotes, weather, translation, maps, travel, and many more) without using a web browser, thereby avoiding unnecessary navigation and clutter, while rendering and formatting the information in an appropriate way.

Sherlock is included with Mac OS X, while Watson costs $29.

Tax/Accounting Software
Scientific Software
x86 Emulators

Bochs is a free, cross-platform, open source x86 emulator. It is extremely flexible and neat, but it is not integrated with or optimized for the Mac, and consequently is rather slow.

Virtual PC is a very useful application that emulates a PC on the Mac. Currently it is the fastest and the most comprehensive x86 emulator for Mac OS X. You can refer to Many Systems on a PowerBook for examples of Virtual PC use.

Web Browsers

Mac OS X includes two web browsers by default: Safari and Internet Explorer (optional in Panther). A number of other web browsers are available for it though (open source and otherwise, free, shareware or commercial, etc.). Here is one list (not necessarily exhaustive):

If you are feeling nostalgic, you can even get a copy of NCSA Mosaic, both as a native Mac OS 9 application (runs under Classic on OS X), or as an X11-based source archive that you can compile from.

What About Games?

I am very ill qualified to comment in this area, having played computer games only on game consoles all my life. From what I hear though, the Mac is (relatively) a far worse candidate than a PC as a gaming platform - not so much because of technical reasons (anymore), but simply because there are not as many games for the Mac.

This is not to say that there are no games at all! I think there are a few, like Breakout, Super Breakout, ...

Apple's web site has a section on available games for Mac OS X.

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