Fink: The Power of Open Source

by Devanshu Mehta Feb 09, 2006

Of all the applications you use on your Mac, which is the one you truly cannot live without? Do I hear GarageBand. Did someone say Safari? Aperture, anyone? Well, for me it is Fink and the open source world that it brings with it.

For those unfamiliar with Fink, it is a project that unleashes the beast that is BSD from under the gorgeous shell of OS X. It is an open source project that modifies Unix software so that it compiles and runs on Mac OS X and provides a tool for easy installation. Fink gives me my Imagemagick (a image manipulation tool), GnuCash (a financial management software) and my programming tools.

The Unix World
The smartest move Apple made in the metamorphosis that was OS X was to base it on BSD- a free Unix derivative that is as old as the personal computer. This new operating system, called Darwin, allowed Apple to tap into the pre-existing developer community of the Unix/Linux world and expand their user base to engineers of all stripes. The stable, robust BSD platform coupled with Apple’s fabled UI design made OS X what it is.

While it was a great deal for Apple as a company, it is an even better deal for end users. Besides getting a great-looking and stable operating system, you get a pre-existing developer community as well. The power of Unix, under your command. It means that most applications that are available to BSD or Linux users are available to you as well. One way to plunge into this new world is to get Fink.

What Is Fink?
The goal of Fink is to bring more Unix software to the Mac OS X. This means tweaking, massaging and sledgehammering open source Unix software to behave (i.e. compile and run) on Mac OS X. And it means providing a “simple” method for casual users to obtain the software.

And why the strange name? Well, according to the site:

Well, actually Fink is the German name for Finch, a kind of bird. I was looking for a name for the project, and the name of the OS, Darwin, led me to think about Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands and evolution. I remembered a piece about the so-called Darwin Finches and their beaks from school, and well, that’s it…

Getting Started
Download Fink and mount the .dmg file. Double-click on the “Fink version_number Installer.pkg” file in Finder to launch the installation. Towards the end of the installation, you will be asked for some system information. The Fink website has more instructions on the installation. Pay close attention to the instructions on getting the latest version of XCode and gcc.

If you are comfortable using the command-line interface (, then run fink scanpackages; fink index to get started. Then to install any package, simply type fink install package_name. For example, fink install gaim will install the popular open source instant messaging client Gaim, including all the packages that Gaim depends on to run.

But who wants to use the command-line when OS X has the prettiest UI in the known universe? For that, we have the FinkCommander

The FinkCommander is an open source front-end to Fink. What this means is that you can list, maintain, install and update Unix-ey packages from a graphical interface, just like Jobs intended you to. Download and install FinkCommander the way you would any other OS X application. On first run, it will attempt a “self-repair” and they you’re good to go.

FinkCommander will present you with a list of available packages for installation. This is just a graphical representation of the Fink command fink list. In Fink, you have the option of installing packages from binaries (pre-built programs) or source (programs built on and for your system). As of this writing, Fink has about 4800 packages. To install any one, select it from the list or search in the search box in the upper right corner. To install from source, click on the Source->Install from the menu. For binary, click on the Binary->Install. For beginners, the binary installations are fine though the source allows you to build tailored to your system and may have a newer available version. Fink will ask you for your administrator password every time you need to install software if it has not asked you recently. Also, the bottom pane of the FinkCommander window will display the progress of the installation.

When new versions of the packages are available, you will want that to be reflected in FinkCommander’s table. To achieve that, click Souce->Selfupdate from the menu. This will update the list of packages so that you can see if any of your installed packages are outdated. You can find a lot more usage information in the Fink user guide and the Fink FAQ.

Of course, Fink is not the only way to go open source. The Dawinports project is similar to Fink, and in fact has some common developers. It is similar to the FreeBSD ports system and only builds packages from source. For users migrating from Linux, especially Gentoo Linux, there is also a Gentoo MacOS which has a very simple method of installing and updating packages, but is still under development. Considering the partially user-friendly interface, breadth of available packages and binary option for installation, Fink is currently the best of the lot.

Final Words
Fink and the community of developers working on ports for OS X help Macs to be a viable option not just to Windows desktops but also to Unix and Linux ones. Users who are used to dual-booting between Windows for supposed ease of use and Linux for power use can easily switch to OS X and have the best of both worlds.

Having said that, there are some issues with Fink the way it exists today. Some of the ports are not stable and upgrades break existing programs once in a while. Also, the ease of use is not what Mac users are used to, which makes the acceptance of Unix applications by the Mac faithful difficult. But both the Fink and FinkCommander project have made tremendous improvements on both of these fronts in recent times.


  • From the command line I’d pick DarwinPorts over Fink.  From a GUI perspective I’d pick FinkCommander over DPGUI.

    sjk had this to say on Feb 18, 2006 Posts: 112
  • @sjk, in some ways I agree; but the target audience of this article is more a FinkCommander user than a command line user. I should probably have a ‘power of the command line’ article some time in the future.

    Devanshu Mehta had this to say on Feb 18, 2006 Posts: 108
  • But Devanshu, how do you run the apps Fink or FinkCommander install? Eg I installed Lincity. Can’t find anyway of running it. Using Spotlight I found where it is, but there’s nothing there that looks like an executable.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jul 14, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • They will be unix-style executables that will need to be run from the command-line, most likely through X.

    Also, the executable will live in /sw/bin if things are in their default locations. So, if things are installed the way I think they are, you would start Apple’s At the command line, type /sw/bin/lincity, or whatever the name of the lincity executable is in /sw/bin.

    Devanshu Mehta had this to say on Jul 14, 2006 Posts: 108
  • Page 1 of 1 pages
You need log in, or register, in order to comment