Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Really alternative operating systems

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Let's get the obvious out of the way from the outset - Microsoft is the absolute epitome of evil - they boil little children in hydrochloric acid, torture puppies and feed kittens to their blood sucking hell hounds. All are undeniable facts, but let's not dwell too deeply on Microsoft the company; what about their spawn-of-Satan operating system, Windows? In its defence, the latest version, Windows XP, is very stable, though it's still extremely buggy, bloated, needs updating constantly and is riddled with gaping security holes. This is just a small sample of the reasons which explain why many disgruntled Windows users are determined to jump ship. The obvious migration path would involve one flavour of Linux or another. Put Linux out of your mind; it's almost considered mainstream these days - I want to introduce you to some really alternative operating systems, some of which you are unlikely to have even heard about.

Admittedly most of them aren't yet mature enough to be considered 'Windows beaters', but that shouldn't stop you experimenting while still running Windows as your main operating system. The first thing you have to understand about really alternative operating systems is that they aren't designed to dominate the world - that's Bill Gate's territory. Believe it or not, plenty of people actually get a buzz out of coding their own OS and seeing it come to life before their eyes - to them it's a challenging hobby and the thrill of discovery is reward enough. To others, writing a new OS from the ground up forms part of a university computer science course and therefore they are driven by the desire to get good grades and go on to secure employment in their chosen field. Some of the most ambitious OS mavericks see their work as a means of 'curing' the existing solutions - they feel they are in some way inefficient, poorly implemented or aesthetically unappealing, for example, and that they can do better.

There is an entire smorgasbord of alternative operating systems out there, and if you were to systematically follow the links from a directory listing site you may quickly become disillusioned - many of them are extremely primitive, and are only intended to perform highly specific tasks which are of little interest to the average home PC user. What I'll be focusing on is those operating systems which are functional on desktop computers - those which can be used to send and receive email, browse the web and write documents for instance. Some of these are small enough to fit on a single floppy disk while others occupy hundreds of megabytes. Push your prejudices aside; quantity has no bearing on quality in the heretical realm of alternative operating systems no matter what Microsoft would have you believe. Similarly, contrary to popular belief, you don't need a supercomputer to run a modern, powerful operating system - you'd be surprised by how meagre the minimum specifications can be.

Zeta

When Be Inc. sold their soul to Palm in 2001 we witnessed the death of BeOS. Palm weren't interested in furthering its development because the financial incentive wasn't as alluring as their other ventures, and it was left to stagnate, neglected and unloved *aww*. That was until YellowTAB bought the rights to take the BeOS baton and breathe fresh life into the project, building on the foundations of version five of the personal edition.

Unlike many alternative operating system projects, Zeta is both a labour of love and a commercial venture (it currently retails for a very reasonable $39 for the home edition). The intention isn't to claw away at Microsoft's or Linux's foothold, but to provide a viable alternative to people seeking a fast, sleek, simple desktop OS with great hardware and software support. Of all the OSs discussed in this article, Zeta is the one to have progressed furthest along its developmental path - not surprising considering Be gave it such a tremendous head start. When Zeta finally debuts, it will have a ready-made fan base of BeOS-starved users waiting to adopt it, and as there is already a vast array of software, news and community discussion web sites devoted to its cause, it's unlikely to fade into obscurity as many wannabe OSs have before it.

It comes complete with a feature-rich office suite which is fully compatible with Microsoft Office, essential multimedia playback applications, internet and CD writing tools. The emphasis is on ease of installation and use - while many unorthodox OSs are quite rightly considered the domain of the computer geek, Zeta is aimed squarely at the newbie while still having plenty to offer the power user. You could say, it's OS X for the PC without being patronising.

Syllable

Like Zeta, Syllable wasn't built independently from the ground up; in July 2002 it was brought to life as a fork of AtheOS, a project largely inspired by BeOS. It is an open source OS designed with simplicity of operation and robustness in mind with a striking focus on aesthetics. While it remains in the early stages of its development, there are already a number of applications available for it, and support for common hardware is apparent. Syllable is designed primarily for the home and small business user, and although it still has a long way to go, it shows great promise.

SkyOS

The most amazing thing about SkyOS is that it has been coded from scratch, mostly as a one-man project. Its influences are clearly evident though it is not a derivative or fork of any existing operating system. Since its induction in December 1997 development has been swift - it is now clearly one of the more mature really alternative operating systems available today. It includes its own propriety web browser, an FTP client, music and video player, developer studio and provides the necessary scaffolding to allow it to run Quake I and II. The installation package even doubles up as a live boot CD to allow you to establish whether or not it meets your requirements before installing it to your hard drive. Performing the latter is actually a cinch - I installed it to an existing FAT32 partition in under ten minutes and the process was effortless from start to finish - it even managed to detect and provide driver support for my Geforce 4 graphics card, something many extremely mature Linux distros fail to do.

Originally SkyOS was an open source venture, but following the release of version 3.0, Robert Szeleney, the project leader, decided he no longer wanted to make his work available to the public and consequently withdrew the source. This decision was met with hostility by many open source advocates who believe that it should be possible to modify, improve and redistribute software for the good of the community. There would be a real danger of the project stagnating completely if development halted and no-one was able to take the reigns. That aside, closed source endeavours have long been associated with profit-making and Microsoft in particular where operating systems are concerned. In his defence, Robert explained that he was not opposed to taking new developers onboard and allowing such insiders to delve into the source code. He also commented that anyone with sufficient programming talent is welcome to contribute code to the project, but that he would modify it to fit in with the coding style of the operating system. This was met with further derision as people assumed he was angling to accept other people's work seemingly in good faith and then claim it as his own seeing as they would no longer be able to prove ownership of the resultant hybrid code.

Personally I think SkyOS is a remarkable achievement and I have great admiration for Robert's dedication. I wouldn't condemn him for taking the closed source route - it is his baby and it is for him alone to do with it as he sees fit. As for the allegations which have been levelled at him, in my eyes, he is innocent until proven guilty.

ReactOS

ReactOS is a very ambitious attempt to recreate the Windows NT kernel. When complete, it will provide full support for native Windows applications and drivers. It should be noted that although the aim is to emulate NT 4.0 technology, applications designed for more modern versions of Windows such as Windows 2000 and XP will also be supported as they are assembled upon the same core code.

Launched in 1997, progression has been excruciatingly slow, and as a result it remains limited as an everyday operating system - currently the only available applications are a basic calculator, a text editor and a handful of system utilities.

It may sound like a great idea in theory to have an open source version of Windows, but there are a number of inherent problems to consider. Firstly, why expend so much time and energy recreating the operating system that so many people love to hate and are desperate to escape from? What OS idealists are clamouring for is the antithesis of Windows, not an open source incarnation of it. Maybe if it could be tweaked to run more efficiently or more intelligently than Windows we'd have something to get excited about, but sadly cloning an operating system necessitates inheriting its faults. By the time ReactOS becomes operational, Microsoft will have abandoned the NT kernel in favour of something much more advanced. The only niche I can realistically see it serving is in the provision of support for applications which will only run on pre-Longhorn versions of Windows. In essence it would become an emulator for abandonware fans, which come to think of it is actually no bad thing.

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