Open Source Software for iPad and iPhone

March 2nd, 2011 | Categories: Free software, iPad, iPhone, Open Source | Tags:

Apple make a big deal out of the fact that their app stores for iPhone and iPad contain thousands upon thousands of apps (or applications for relative oldies such as myself).  Some of them are free of change, many of them cost money but I got to wondering how many of them were open source.

When I say ‘open source’ here I mean ‘The source code is available’.  If there is a recognised license attached to the source code (such as GPL or BSD) then all the better.  So, what do we have?

Possibly the the best list of iOS open source software I have found is available at which, at the time of writing, includes 42 different applications complete with iTunes links and the all important links to source code.  Another useful resource is which is a regularly updated directory of open source apps and libraries for iOS. There’s some great stuff available including Battle for Wesnorth, SCI-15C Scientific calculator and TuxRider (based on Tux Racer).

Free as in Speech but not always Free as in Beer

One of the things you’ll notice about iOS open source apps is that they often cost money and sometimes quite a lot which is in stark contrast to what you may be used to.  For example, Battle for Wesnorth can be had for no money at all on platforms such as Linux and Windows but the iPad version costs $5.99 at the time of writing. The more serious, SCI-15C Scientific calculator costs $19.99 right now which is rather steep for any iPhone app let alone an open source one.

Charging money for open source software may upset some people but doing so is usually not against the terms and conditions of the underlying license.  The Free Software Foundation (inventors of the GPL, one of the most popular forms of open source license) has the following to say on the matter (original source)

“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.

Personally, I am happy to pay a few dollars for the iPad version of an open-source app if the developer has done a good job of the port.  What does surprise me, however, is that it seems like no one has taken the source-code of these apps, recompiled them and then released  free-of-charge versions on the app store.  This wouldn’t be against the license conditions of licenses such as the GPL so why hasn’t it been done?  I wouldn’t do it because I feel that it would be unfair to the developer of the iOS version but I would be surprised if  everyone felt this way.

What’s next?

There are many open source applications that I’d love to see ported to iPad.  Here’s my top three wants:

Over to you….What do you think of the state of open source software on iPhone and iPad?  Which applications would you most like to see ported?  What are your favourite open source apps?

Update: 9th March 2011.
Apparently, many of the open source applications currently available on the App store today violate the terms of licenses such as the GPL. The Inquirer has more details.

  1. Stephen
    March 2nd, 2011 at 20:08
    Reply | Quote | #1

    Just a note on the economics of all this. To get an app in the app store isn’t free as one has to pay Apple for the right to be a registered developer. On these grounds I have some understanding for charging for an open source application.

    Second, Apply has to approve every app that gets released. As their business model is based on taking a 30% cut from every sale, they don’t really have a lot of incentives to approve apps that provide similar (or in this case exact) features for less money.

  2. Paul
    March 4th, 2011 at 11:37
    Reply | Quote | #2

    Sadly, as has been seen recently with the VLC debacle, the terms of Apple’s app store do not work with the GPL so there’s a lot of great software that currently can’t be made available through official channels.

  3. March 5th, 2011 at 09:39
    Reply | Quote | #3

    I wasn’t aware of the ‘VLC debacle’ so just googled it. A good description of the situations is at

    Sad news! It is issues such as this that drive me away from Apple based products. The iPad was my first and may well be my last.

  4. MySchizoBuddy
    March 6th, 2011 at 14:40
    Reply | Quote | #4

    i think you have misunderstood the VLC debacle. It was the VideoLan developers that complained to Apple that VLC be removed from the store cause they didn’t port it to the iOS platform. It was ported by someone else. The issue was since VLC is under GPL why would it matter who ported it. But VideoLan developers insisted that VLC be removed since they are the copyright owners and only they can put VLC on the App store not someone else.

    “Apple faces a similar problem, although Apple’s terms don’t explicitly ban the GPL, and GPL-licensed applications have been placed in the App Store. However, Apple equally fails to honour the terms of the GPL: the company provides no way to download source code to applications distributed in the store. The rights-holders to GPLed software are entitled to demand that any such software be withdrawn, and in at least one high-profile example—VLC—they have done precisely this.”

    quote arstechnica

  5. MySchizoBuddy
    March 6th, 2011 at 14:46
    Reply | Quote | #5

    same thing will happen here. if octave is ported by someone else and put on the store the copyright holder of octave james eaton can demand it be removed. It HAS to be ported by the official octave team. Same issue with gnuplot as well. So far developers of gnuplot and octave have shown no interest in even doing basic things like creating an xcode project to ease compiling of octave and gnuplot.

    Octave doesn’t even provide official binaries for mac. you have to get them for third party. So the ball is in their court if they want to be on iOS or not. the term of App store license don’t forbid GPL.

  6. August 21st, 2011 at 11:24
    Reply | Quote | #6

    re: “Apparently, many of the open source applications currently available on the App store today violate the terms of licenses such as the GPL” well, that explains why and it makes me very irritated that mac would do this. I have loved Mac products for 10+ years but this is not good news.

  7. Dao
    September 30th, 2011 at 21:10
    Reply | Quote | #7

    Is the issue specific to GPL style licenses? Do they require source code distribution from the same source as the binary distribution? Why should it matter where the source code is made available as long as it is indeed available?

    My understanding is more permissive license such as BSD and MIT are just fine. The GPL and FSF (for all the wonderful merits of both) are but one “source” to frame the creation and use of open source software. Choice and freedom are at the core of FSF principles so hopefully this does not ruffle any feathers.

    Do licenses exist that require source code distribution, but then allow distribution to come from another source — say from any of the free-for-public-projects repositories out there? Could the GPL be modified to allow this scenario and still be true to the spirit of the FSF? Am i missing some other more important point?

    ~ Dao