I agree with John Gruber here: it’s not like Apple’s stuff has become worse than a competitor’s, it’s just that it’s not as good as I remember or expect. It could be, as Daniel Jalkut suggests, rose-tinted glasses[*].
I don’t think there is a “better” competitor, except in limited senses: Solaris/IllumOS and OpenBSD both have good-quality code but are not great to use out of the box: Solaris in particular I associate with abysmal package management and flaky support from supposedly cross-platform applications that are actually only ever built and tested on GNU Debian has well-adhered free software guidelines and much better compatibility but not all GNU code is as high-quality as some alternatives. The OpenBSD copyright policy and the FSF definition of freedom are incompatible so OpenBSD doesn’t contain much GNU software GNU doesn’t contain much OpenBSD software: you get a base system that’s either one or the other and have to do work if you want bits of both. Other GNU/Linux distributions can be easier to set up and have better (i.e. any) support for non-free software and wider collections of device drivers.
So there are plenty of alternatives, many of which are good in some ways and bad in others, and all I know is that I don’t want things to be like this, without being able to say I want one of those instead. I don’t even think there will be one of those, at least not in the sense of a competitor to Apple on laptop operating systems. Why not? Because I agree with the following statement from wesolows:
from the perspective of someone who appreciates downstack problems and the value created by solving them, is that the de facto standard technology stack is ossifying upward. As one looks at each progressively lower layer, the industry’s collective willingness to contemplate, much less sponsor, work at that layer diminishes.
There’s still research in operating systems, sure, but is there development? Where are the NeXTs and Bes of today? I don’t believe you could get to a million users and have a Silicon Valley “exit” with low-level technology improvements, and so I don’t think the startup world is working in that area. So we probably won’t get anything good from there. I don’t see competition in operating systems being fruitful. If it were, Sun wouldn’t have been sold.
In fact I don’t even think that Apple’s systems are bad, they’ve just lost the “it just works” sheen. It’s just that when you combine that with the lack of credible alternative, you realise the problem is probably in expecting some corporation to put loads of resources into something that’s not going to have a great value, and merely needs to be “good enough” to avoid having any strategic penalty.
To me, that means treating the low-level parts of the technology stack as a public good. If we accept that the stack is ossifying upwards, and that EM64T, Unix, C, IP, HTTP, SQL and other basic components are going to be around essentially forever[**] then we need to treat them and their implementations as public goods and take common ownership of them. They might not be the best possible, but they are the best available. We (we the people who make systems on top of them, in addition to we the people who use systems made on top of them) need them to work collectively, so we should maintain them collectively.
[*]I particularly like his use of the phrase “Apple-like” in this context, because that term is often used to mean “my platonic ideal of Apple’s behaviour” rather than “what Apple actually does” and reminds me to be wary of my own recollections. I remember Lightning connectors being welcomed in a tweet that derided the old iPod 30-pin connector as “un-Apple-like”, despite the evidence that Apple invented, introduced the 30-pin connector and then supported it for over a decade.
[**] speaking of Sun, I use the definition of computer-forever I learned from a Sun engineer: five years or longer.