What are the Command Line Developer tools in OS X?

Sometimes you might try to run a program or two on your Mac, and encounter a message that states you need to install the command line developer tools. The message will then have options to install the tools, cancel the request, or get Apple’s XCode software package.

If you encounter this warning, you may wonder whether or not the command line tools are genuine and whether or not your system’s security might be compromised by installing them.

MacIssues reader Dwayne asks:

I have a program called iSquint on my Mac…and when I opened it today and tried to use it, I get a prompt asking me to download Command Line Developer Tools or Xcode. I don’t know what either is and I don’t want to download something that may allow someone else access to my computer.

This message happens because of the lack of Apple’s developer tools on your Mac. Apple’s development tools (ie, its XCode suite) are provided separately from OS X, and are made available for free in the App Store. They allow programmers to compile programs and debug them, convert files, and perform a number of tasks for handling the resources required for making applications and other tools.

Running the Terminal-based developer tool “make” on a system without the command line tools installed will prompt you to install them (click image for larger view).

While Apple’s XCode software package contains most of what is needed to create OS X applications, software development before XCode required vast uses of the Terminal (or command-line) and there are still many developers and projects that make heavy use of this approach. For this purpose, even though XCode contains all development tools in one package, Apple provides the ability to install the command line tools separately from or instead of XCode.

Even though these tools are generally used in the development process only, some programs may require one or two of them when running. Since they are not installed by default, when such programs are run, or if you try to run any of the command line tools manually, OS X will detect these attempts and then prompt you to install either XCode or the command line tools package.

While security is a valid concern, and while I recommend you avoid installing any tools or utilities that you do not need, having these tools installed will not compromise the security of your Mac. They will only add some additional functionality, such as programming capabilities, file conversion, and other useful features, and if you do not use these features directly then the tools will sit benignly on your system.

While the latest command line tools for OS X will be downloaded if you choose the option to install them, you can also download the latest tools and install them manually from Apple’s developer Web site (requires a free Developer ID). With these available, if you are concerned about the genuineness of the message that pops up, you can download and install these tools and then try running your program again. If the message was genuine then it should no longer appear.

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