Haiku is getting close

by Jon Davis 19. August 2007 18:57

So I only recently (as in, last night) just stumbled upon Haiku, the complete open source operating system built from scratch to mirror, and have binary compatibility with, good old BeOS. It's not done yet, not even in a public beta yet. But after six years (the project just had a 6th birthday) I've played with its base VMWare image and I can say that it's looking really solid. Definitely simple and lightweight right now, sure, but it's coming along and seems very fast and stable, and looks to be, by far, good enough to start enticing a lot more geeks to participate. When it can recompile itself within itself (and I believe they mention that that milestone is really close) so that you don't need Linux to compile the OS, I think that will be the beginning of a new OS era.

One quick observation of the Haiku community, IMO it mirrors the BeOS community (which are not entirely one and the same, but only mostly), and I think that it suffers from a little bit too much of antagonism with commercial OS's (namely Windows), which itself I really abhor. I think Windows Vista and Mac OS X are both very fine operating systems, despite their many flaws, and a decade ago I always thought it was ever so annoying and crippling of progression for the BeOS (and now Haiku) to constantly berate proven ideas in use in Windows and in Mac OS and dismiss them as horrible and stupid, just because the ideas were introduced in those operating systems. For example, the Registry. I was around in the Windows 3.1 days and I thought the registry was a really good idea. I still think so; I just think Microsoft abuses it, and I think MS should have published and followed some better best practices for where to put installation audits so that if an app gets manually removed there is only one branch that needs to be deleted. But the idea of a consistent central repository of configuration information for installed apps that integrate with the OS as well as for the system itself is a very good one. Anyway, Be folks (Haiku folks) just whine and complain about that stuff, waa, I hate Windows, waa. The problem is that their hatred of all things exclusive to Windows has traditionally blinded them. Microsoft spends hundreds of millions of dollars on reasearching operating system best practices and usability. They've made a lot of mistakes but their results, especially their exclusive "features" like the registry, should not go completely unnoticed.

I got so annoyed by it that circa 1999 or so I tried to start a web site called BeCritical, criticizing the Be design for things like neglecting to inform the user of being in a busy state when double-clicking an application icon, just for the sake of trying not to be like Windows. I even conducted and posted a real e-mail-based interview with their role model, Alan Cooper, author of the book About Face, to gain his insight. But I was hosting the web site locally in my home office (as I do now with this blog) and the whole site was lost due to a bad hard drive (or something) shortly thereafter, and I hadn't learned to backup my stuff and so obviously I didn't rebuild.

Last night I wasn't sure how to get Be OS software installed on my copy of the VMWare image, since a web browser hasn't been added yet. I saw the FTP command line client is present, but using that assumes that what I might try out is FTP-accessible (UPDATE: wget is in there as well).

But today I found a better way to sample BeOS software on this thing. Someone in the community has started to compile a big huge VMWare image of a bunch of BeOS software apps running within Haiku. I'm downloading now ...


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Computers and Internet | Operating Systems

Why Linux Isn't The Open Source Desktop Answer

by Jon Davis 19. August 2007 01:59

On the PC, Windows wins, Linux loses, and I'm not even cheering for either side. The Mac is just off on the side, looking pretty like a squad of cheerleaders, but I have my eyes fixated straight up at the stars above. Even though I am sitting on the Windows side of the field, with my money invested in the team only because that's where I know the money will come back to me, I'm feeling bummed out, if more than just bored with this two- or three-sided competition.

Let's face it, there are only three major computer operating systems having any relevance in the modern personal computer markeplace: Mac OS, *nix, and Windows. And since Mac OS is, as of OS X, a rewrite built on Mach, a variant of *nix, there are actually only two, but since so much originality remains invested in the Mac environment it deserves recognition of its own.

And then there was BeOS, a truly original operating system that was complete, thorough, fast, cool, beautiful, happily geeky yet user friendly enough for my mother to use, but tragically lost to a failure to win the market. The intellectual assets of its demise went the way of mobile computing, which reminds me a great deal of the exact same process that was experienced by GEOS (my first exposure to a *real* user operating system) a decade prior, which in my view was the most innovative output of pure genius ever to execute on 64k bytes of silicon. GEOS gave the early Macintosh a run for its money, much like BeOS did ten years later, but both and especially the latter struggled to retain (or, for all I know, even obtain) profitability.

The obvious reason for their failure is perhaps because the Macintosh and Windows operating systems already had their foot in the door, and consumers couldn't handle choosing between more than two systems. But I tend to think it had more to do with hardware. GEOS ran on the Commodore 64 when the C64 was already proving itself antiquated, and except for the Commodore 128 (technically, the MOS Technology 6502, till 16-bit GEOS came about for x86) it didn't really have enough hardware on which to install itself, at least not soon enough to matter. The Be operating system, meanwhile, started out on the PowerPC CPU. In fact, it was the true power of the PowerPC that initiated the dream of Be. Be's founder was a former Apple employee who was frustrated with the fact that the Macintosh operating system simply wasn't taking advantage of the hardware, and Be OS was intent on harnessing that power. Meanwhile, PowerPC chips were manufacturered by IBM and Motorola, but they weren't exactly easy to come by on a PC except in Apple Macintosh hardware and proprietary systems. (Said proprietary systems included Be OS's own hardware, the BeBox.) When that proved to limit the Be OS market too heavily, Be OS re-targeted itself to the i386 platform, but by then it was too late; the excitement of a fresh new geeky operating system had waned, and now it was only a novelty.

To be more precise, and accurately agree with the observations of the general public, there was just too little reason for people to switch to Be. Not enough hardware driver support. Not enough software. Windows and Mac met those needs fine. Be had something for everyone, be sure, but by the time corporate funds ran out, it just wasn't nearly enough. Being a closed-source system on a commercial budget, the project simply dried up. An operating system of that magnitude really needs a decade to develop in order to take on the industry.

Then comes along Linus Torvalds. The guy slaps together (okay, that's harsh, he carefully knits together) a Unix kernel that runs on the i386 platform and makes it open source. The Linux operating system is birthed. Suddenly, the UNIX crowd--a huge crowd in the computing realm--have a zero-budget operating system for their microcomputer workstations that is stable, clean, fun, and cool (and isn't FreeBSD).

A decade later, we have a gajillion Linux "distros" (customized distributions of the Linux operating system, typically branded), a whole lot of eye candy, development tools, rediculously commonplace mention in geek and business tabloids, and a ubiquitous following by the non-Microsoft geek community. And if there isn't a day that I don't hear the word "Ubuntu" cross my web browser window at least two or three times per day, it will just be another distro to replace it.

So here I am now with VMWare, playing once again with an instance of Fedora (another Linux distro), and scratching my head wondering why in one day I have had to delete the entire thing and start over three times just to get everything installed and up-to-date when it has been made to be so click-easy. I wonder why I have lost at least three non-consecutive nights at the office to setting up Linux distros at the office, if tools like 'yum' make it so quick and simple.

And of course the answer to my wonderings is consistently the same as it was many years ago when Linux first showed itself in my living room: despite the limitless extent of scripts, quick commands, and distribution GUI tools, it's still the same geek operating system that demands flawless geek sequencing of configuration and implementation. What do you do when RPM dependency trees get out of sync or outta whack? Spend many hours rebuilding it, or start over from scratch. What do you do when the VM gets suddenly reset (because a whole frickin gigabyte of physical RAM didn't get allocated to it) while 'pup' extras are downloading and installing? Either go back and uninstall everything that got (half-)installed and then go back and reinstall everything, or just start over and format the drive. Then there's the matter of the whole stack of libraries for things like mySql. And, oh, the pain of getting MonoDevelop to just install on Fedora 7, with missing GtkSharp libraries leading me to a hell-hole path of looking for GTK+, Pango, GLib, atk, cairo, configure this, make that, oh I give up, please just kill me now!!

In fact, there is a laundry list of reasons why I think this whole operating system is just not the answer for converting Windows developers.

1. The directory structure isn't. It isn't a structure. It's a mess. I mean, what is the *real* difference between, oh, let's see, opt, usr, and var? I realize that some things just start trickling together into the same place, like putting configuration bits into a directory called "etc". But, I mean, for goodness sake.. Putting configuration files into a folder that is named the abbreviation for "etcetera"? Putting system-wide executable programs into a directory that is named after the user ("/usr/bin")? Putting the user's files into a directory called "home"? There is no rhyme or reason to this. It just is. And it is, because the geeks are used to it, they know where to put this stuff like they know how to deal with their siblings. But the so-called structure is maintained by memory and familiarty, not by sensibility.

Both the Macintosh operating systems and Windows operating systems make sense with their system directory structures. Or at least, the Macintosh I once knew with System 6 and System 7 (I haven't seen OS X closely yet.) The operating system was in a directory called "System". Fonts were put into a pseudo-directory (a "suitcase") in the System directory called "Fonts". User documents were put into "Documents", applications into "Applications". And on Windows, it's a bit messier but still makes more sense than opt/var/usr. The operating system files go into "Windows", the name of the operating system. Software applications go into "Program Files" (with a space in the name that has driven us all crazy, I know, but at least it's obvious what it's for). Shared DLLs now go into Program Files, in a subdirectory called "Common Files". User documents and preferences once went into a horrible place called "Profiles" in the Windows directory, but that was moved to "Documents and Settings" in the root directory, and then in Windows Vista it moved again to just "Users". A lot of moving around, but always in the pursuit of sensible structure. And inside the user's profile directory, you have a whole new world, especially in Vista, with organized directory structure, between documents, multimedia files, temp files, app settings, and more. Each directory is sensibly named, no geeky bull. As Microsoft so annoyingly puts it, it's "people-ready".

And don't get me started on how brilliantly simple, perfect, readable, yet sufficiently geeky (terse and lowercase) Be OS's directory naming convention was...

2. It's consistent in things that users don't want to see, and inconsistent in things that they do. So many distros, each one having its own touches. So many window managers, each one having its own capabilities and layouts. But no one is cleaning up the ugly bits. All that stuff is tucked away, swept under the bed, hidden, with a nice GNOME/KDE/other user interface that attempts (and fails, miserably) to shield the novice end user from being exposed from the senseless geekiness that is the UNIX underpinnings of a very old operating system. When the shielding does work, it doesn't work. For instance, Fedora 7 has a GUI configurator for the Apache web server, but if you use it you will break Apache because you'll get two different configuration files in the "etc" directory and between the two of them you'll get two bindings to Port 80. This doesn't just get fixed through the update pipeline (or hadn't when this bug bit me) because Fedora's contributors are busy working on so many other bugs. This is the big problem with having so many distros, all the efforts are forked across a couple hundred repeat efforts to provide a custom solution to the same problem and no one is ultimately accountable for leadership except the volunteers on behalf of a particular instance.

3. It is bound to its legacy. Despite very careful and successful handiwork of incredibly smart software programmers, the ancient operating system has evolved with total support for both legacy and modern architectures. That fact should bring a smile to any Linux geek's face, but it is not a good thing. Think Windows 95. Windows 98. Windows ME. Each of these was an evolution of a really, really poorly architected operating system that seemed as though Microsoft was using bubble gum and tape to expand the operating system's capabilities. (In actuality, bubble gum and tape were not used. Microsoft had a bit more money than that to afford caulk and nails--of the brittle sort. The problem was a broken foundation, that was ultimately replaced with the NT4/2000 reworked codebase.) Linux fortunately has a very stable foundation on which to add all these new evolutionary features, but the support it has for legacy software and the great multitude of development libraries is also the undying foundation that can never become declared as antiquated because so much depends on it.

I'm glad that the Linux foundational underpinnings are constantly improving; I know that the Linux kernel team(s) are working hard to stay up to date to support the latest and greatest support for things like new chipset hardware, multiprocessing (years ago), and now hypervisor support (recent). But it still walks and talks like a penguin--as in, like a geek who knows how to use Emacs and can explain what the big difference is between '/var' and '/usr', or why we use 'init 3' to break out of the GUI. Evolution has come in the form of additional software libraries that run on top of this awkward wave-bouncing boat that miraculously stays afloat without sinking.

4. The revised GUI applications are improving dramatically, but the classic software itself doesn't make sense. Look at text-mode Emacs. If you know how to use Emacs, skip this, but if you don't, look at it. Can you figure out how to use it just by looking at it? Poking at it? No? OK, try "man emacs", or google for help. What's that? Going to take you days to get started? Okay, then, let me know when you can start being productive. I expect to hear from you next week. Hopefully that's not too soon.

5. Without authoritative decision makers, you end up with chaos. And that's exactly what Linux is--organized chaos. Or is it chaotic organization? The stuff "just works", when it does. But wow is it a mess of gobbligook, with no one to account for the mess that it is. With the old Macintosh System 6 / 7 (again, I don't know what OS X looks like), applications were cleanly organized into a self-dependent, fully consolidated application file. Preferences were dropped into a Preferences directory. In Windows, applications are cleanly tucked into "Program Files\Company\App Name" or "Program Files\App Name". Shared libraries are pretty much always .dll's, and DLLs are always either 'C' invokable libraries (which may or may not be COM invokable) or CLR assemblies. App settings go into a pseudo file system, created just for configurations--the Windows registry--and follow standard path conventions like HKCU/Software/[App]/@setting=value. And when software is installed, it must be registered as an installed app and be uninstallable from "Add/Remove Programs" (or "Programs and Features" in Vista). Linux does have RPM, but the dependency trees as well as the potential corruption thereof are too painful to deal with.

A clean design starts with a designer, and consistency with a clean design depends on an authority figure who can sign off on it. With Linux, which has no one designer, you have all sorts of kinds of files, in all kinds of different "languages" (.o, .class, .pl, .bleah), no file typing ("chmod +x bleah"), and can put /any/thing/any/where/.and/yet/it/will/make/sense/to/some/geek. Everything that works, works to the people that established it and to the people who learned it to build dependencies upon it. But the fact that any one thing might work fine doesn't change the fact that the combination of the sum of all of its parts is more akin to a zoo than an organization, which makes it extremely difficult for the average person to adopt.

6. The GUI subsystem (X Window) is hardly performant and is erratic. Macintosh rebuilt its GUI subsystem based on PDF technology for crisp anti-aliasing, yet its down-to-the-metal optimizations make it a clean, fast, and beautiful environment. Microsoft Windows Vista's Aero subsystem takes it to the next level and channels everything through Direct3D, taking advantage of video card optimizations to make the user experience very smooth and responsive. But Linux? From what I can tell, it still pushes everything through the TCP/IP network stack, which is one of the slowest (if most versatile) computer communications channels on an operating system. The advantage is that you can redirect windowing instructions to another machine (like you can with Windows' Remote Desktop) even through SSH, but the down side is that you have limited performance, and you have to minimize the instructions and make the instruction set "smarter" to do things like OpenGL or other graphics-intensive work. In the end, whenever I use Linux locally I feel like I'm using Remote Desktop. The mouse is slow and erratic, and everything feels a few milliseconds slower than me. Everything seems like it's bound by elastic bands. Whereas, when I'm in Windows doing the same things, everything is very responsive; the mouse, in particular, feels flawless and perfectly optimized to bind to my hardware and physical movements. (The Windows kernel seems to manage the mouse in an isolated, high priority system thread, seperate from everything else, which is why no matter how slow other things are, it is always very responsive and true to physical movement.) And I don't suppose I can ever dream of getting VMWare to resize the client OS screen resolution at runtime without unloading X Window and restarting it.

But there are some things I like about Linux.

I like that there is a "clean" command-line environment where administration can be performed without a GUI. I still miss Windows 95/98 being able to "boot into DOS mode", switching straight to MS-DOS 7 on which Windows 95 was still built on top of. Windows NT/2000/XP/2003/Vista forces you to have a useless mouse in your face even if you're booting into "Safe Mode with Command Prompt".

I like the support for significant development languages and tools, like Java and Python. I can learn such things in Windows and deploy to Linux. (Why I would want to if it runs in Windows, though, I don't know, but some stuff I have to support is built on that crazy zoo of a foundation that Linux is, such as Perl and Apache and lots of Linux-specific add-on modules that get dropped into those weird directories.)

I like the geek love that Linux enjoys. Windows doesn't get that love. It only gets hate, from the Linux lovers. Then again, the local user's group for Microsoft technologies definitely enjoys some Windows and .NET love, so nevermind.

I like the network orientation of Linux. It's not the answer, but it does set a precedent.

I like the artistic contributions for the more recent UI elements, like GNOME. I think the fonts are lame, but more for inconsistent display behavior between windows and programs than for the font designs.

But I can totally live without those things. I'd much rather live without those things than have to put up with the mess that Linux is. Let's face it, Linux isn't the open-source answer for a sensible operating system.

The ReactOS project isn't the answer, either. If we wanted Windows, we'll get Windows. We don't need an open-source look-alike of Windows. What this is about is the need for an innovative and original open source operating system that is not bound by legacy constraints.

Be OS came ever so close, if only it was still available and open source! But Haiku OS (not Linux-based, and inspired by Be OS) seems REALLY interesting. Could it be the answer??

With the advent of virtualization with VMWare, Virtual PC, Parallels, and Xen now being commonplace, I can't help but wonder why people in the geek community haven't gone back to the drawing board already to rethink operating systems.

Microsoft gave me a glimmer of hope with their Singularity project. Singularity is a fresh, from-scratch operating system that Microsoft built using a little bit of assembly and C/C++ but mostly a variant of C# all the way down to the metal. It completely drops all ties to legacy support, and instead focuses on the future. It's so multi-threaded oriented that hypervisors are a moot concept. It is Microsoft's opportunity to take two decades of lessons learned with Windows and try to prototype an OS with no legacy constraints and lessons learned now applied. And although it's not tuned for inherent performance (which is why assembly and C++ lovers will inevitably hate the Singularity project idea), it's still performant, and runs circles around modern OS's when it comes to inter-process communications.

Sadly, the Singularity project isn't open-source. That is, Microsoft Research did "open" it up to a few professors in a few select universities, but this isn't an open source operating system intended to be consumed by the general global geek community.

This is why I'm getting a bit excited about the idea that maybe it's time for the geeks to get a clue. VMWare has debugger support to the hardware level and even rewind and replay support. The tools are ripe for dreaming, building, and playing with a whole new operating system, one that is sensibly designed, responsibly organized, and yet open for community contributions. This would be an opportunity for people to learn how to organize and delegate community representatives, to provide the world a fresh, clean, newly design operating system that is free to use, freely consumable, free to break apart, free to extend, but having a single, organized, moderated, carefully planned public "distro", all the way down to the metal, with no legacy constraints, and with sights set for the future. If the open source community really wants to compete with Microsoft, they should pay attention to what Microsoft is doing beside duplicating Windows Explorer with Nautilus, and look at how Microsoft is constantly rethinking and refactoring its core design, from the kernel (dropping Win9x for WinNT) to the directory structures to the windowing subsystem being channeled straight through Direct3D (with Aero).

Believe it, you can have your GNU and OSI (open source initiative), and lose your *nix. It's okay if you do. I'll be cheering you on. Even if I'm the only one on the stands who is doing the wave. But not until we get away from usr/var/etc, and stop taking geeky, old-school, antiquated foundations for granted. They're expensive and they're not worth keeping around.


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About the author

Jon Davis (aka "stimpy77") has been a programmer, developer, and consultant for web and Windows software solutions professionally since 1997, with experience ranging from OS and hardware support to DHTML programming to IIS/ASP web apps to Java network programming to Visual Basic applications to C# desktop apps.
Software in all forms is also his sole hobby, whether playing PC games or tinkering with programming them. "I was playing Defender on the Commodore 64," he reminisces, "when I decided at the age of 12 or so that I want to be a computer programmer when I grow up."

Jon was previously employed as a senior .NET developer at a very well-known Internet services company whom you're more likely than not to have directly done business with. However, this blog and all of jondavis.net have no affiliation with, and are not representative of, his former employer in any way.

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