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Why prominent 'hobbyist' operating systems face an existential crisis

Chris Hoffman | Nov. 17, 2014
Do you think Linux is an alternative, hobbyist operating system? Ha! Linux is mainstream. These are the real hobbyist operating systems--passion projects worked on by a handful of developers in their spare time.

Do you think Linux is an alternative, hobbyist operating system? Ha! Linux is mainstream. These are the real hobbyist operating systems — passion projects worked on by a handful of developers in their spare time.

In spite of all the talent and dedication this takes, these projects just aren't getting anywhere. The web is strewn with the carcasses of hobbyist operating systems that never blossomed into something bigger (see: SkyOS). The most prominent hobbyist operating systems of today aren't looking too healthy, either — hobbled by a lack of developer interest and the rapid evolution of what people expect from operating systems.

Let's dig in.

Haiku is still catching up to 1998

People love — or loved — BeOS. This lightweight operating system was great compared to Windows 98 back in the day.

Unfortunately, BeOS died on the vine. Be Inc. sued Microsoft for pressuring Compaq and Hitachi to not release BeOS hardware and artificially depressing their IPO prices, but the damage was already done. By the time Microsoft paid $23.5 million to Be Inc. as a settlement, BeOS was done for.

People still miss BeOS, and still sit around playing "what if." Haiku is an open-source project to recreate BeOS, complete with binary compatibility with BeOS applications. Development on Haiku began in 2001. While it's come a long way since then, it hasn't come nearly far enough. Haiku released their first Alpha release in 2009, and the last release was another alpha release in 2012. It's nearly 2015 — 17 years after Windows 98 stomped BeOS and 14 years after Haiku development started — and Haiku even isn't in beta yet.

If you were waiting for Haiku, you've probably given up. Even if Haiku was mature, it would be extremely difficult to keep up with the pace of change and create drivers for modern hardware. But it's not mature — it's still chasing a level of maturity BeOS was at in 1998. Haiku is falling farther and farther behind.

The Haiku developers discussed this on their mailing list recently:

"...why are we still working on Haiku? Quoting the mission statement from our homepage: 'Haiku is a new open-source operating system that specifically targets personal computing. Inspired by the BeOS, Haiku is fast, simple to use, easy to learn and yet very powerful.'

Is that still our main goal? To create an operating system that specifically targets personal computing? Or have we evolved to the goal of a fun playground for OS-developers to play around with modern OS concepts?

...Note that I am in no way upset about this evolution of the mission. In fact, I do think that the PC-landscape has changed dramatically since the inception of the project, and I also underscore that there is a clear lack of focus when it comes to accomplishing our current mission. I would go so far as to say that the severe lack of interest of developers into finishing R1 is a great indication in that there really hardly seems to be any place for a new (mainstream?) desktop operating system anymore? Even the Linux on the desktop guys seem to have ceased preaching their gospel."

 

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