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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Haiku: an escape from mediocrity

No, I don’t mean poetry. I mean the newest operating system written for personal computers.

Most of us use Microsoft Windows, whose development began in 1989. There were versions of Microsoft Windows before then, but the code base for Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP is derived from a product called Windows NT that was released in 1993. In short, the operating system that you are using is over 20 years old already. Microsoft, of course, doesn’t want you to think of it that way.

All you Macintosh users, you're even worse off. The basics of Macintosh are older, with development beginning in 1979 and culminating in the 1983 release of the first Macintosh product. Ah, you say, the current Macintosh operating system is a layer on top of Unix. Really?

My son Eric converted his laptop to a dual-boot configuration, so that he can run either Ubuntu Linux or Windows. I smiled. I was privileged to use one of the first Unix systems to be shipped outside of Bell Labs where Unix was developed. The system was installed at Georgia Tech in 1976. The inconvenient truth is that Unix is older than both Macintosh and Windows.

Why does this matter? Old software, by nature, is inflexible. It’s difficult to modify, and it inevitably reflects design compromises that were necessary in its early years. Old software is not a good platform for innovation – and sadly, we haven’t seen much innovation in personal computing in the last 15 years. The last truly significant improvement in personal computing was the introduction of a web browser. Everything since then has been a rather tasteless carrot placed in front of the hungry horse.

Back to Haiku. In 1990 a company called Be was founded in California. Populated by ex-Apple engineers, it aimed to bring a new personal computer to market. Be computers were to use a new operating system, BeOS, whose design began in 1991. Like most startups, Be was a commercial and financial failure. However, BeOS won acclaim for its design.

After Be dissolved, BeOS was ultimately taken over by an open-source group that has doggedly continued development under the name Haiku. There is now an Alpha 2 release of Haiku, and reportedly there will be a beta release in 2011.

I have loaded Haiku onto an old computer. It runs clean, and there is no feature bloat. It allows me to use a computer instead of distracting me. That’s precisely what an OS for a personal computer should do. I don't need or want a Swiss army knife; just give me a roll of duct tape.

I don’t know whether Haiku will ever attain widespread acceptance, but I hope so. It’s the last hope for a post-1990 operating system, unless Google’s Chrome OS is successful – and even Chrome OS is partially dependent on Unix.