Why prominent 'hobbyist' operating systems face an existential crisis

Do you think Linux is an alternative, hobbyist operating system? Ha! Linux is mainstream. If you're looking for the next niche OS, you'll need to dive deep into the cracks and crevices: passion projects worked on by a handful of developers in their spare time.

That's not to say they'll be successful, however. 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.

haiku alpha 4

Haiku OS alpha 4.

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.“

And they’re right. When I asked Fedora’s new community manager about the future of desktop Linux, he told me most people thought computers were a “horrible nightmare.” The future of desktop Linux seems to be powerful workstations, with Chrome OS and Android carrying the consumer Linux torch.

ReactOS is on a quixotic quest to reimplement Windows

ReactOS is a project working on creating an open-source reimplementation of Windows, written completely from scratch. Wine allows you to run Windows programs on Linux, and ReactOS incorporates some Wine code—but it’s more than that. ReactOS wants to be Windows to the core, right down to the ability to load Windows hardware drivers.

Just check out the ambition in the ReactOS mission statement:

"The main goal of the ReactOS project is to provide an operating system which is binary compatible with Windows. This will allow your Windows applications and drivers to run as they would on your Windows system. Additionally, the look and feel of the Windows operating system is used, such that people accustomed to the familiar user interface of Windows would find using ReactOS straightforward. The ultimate goal of ReactOS is to allow you to use it as alternative to Windows without the need to change software you are used to."

The ReactOS project started as a spin-off of FreeWin95, a project to create an open-source reimplementation of Windows 95. Nearly twenty years later, ReactOS is still an active project, with the latest release occurring just a few days ago—but it’s still in very incomplete alpha form.

reactos 0.3.17 about

ReactOS 0.3.17.

ReactOS is in an even tougher position than Haiku. Their goal is to chase Microsoft, reimplementing the Windows NT architecture from scratch. Like Haiku, they’re falling increasingly behind. Sure, ReactOS is getting some improvements, but Microsoft is changing Windows much more quickly—and many open-source enthusiasts abandoned ReactOS after controversy swirled around the alleged use of Windows code in the operating system. Like Haiku, ReactOS needs more developers than it has.

After more than 20 years in development, you have to wonder: Will ReactOS ever actually release a stable-quality reimplementation of Windows? And why would you even want that when you can use Wine to run Windows software on Linux? Even Wine will never be perfect, and they’re working on a much smaller goal with much more people.

ReactOS also seems to have missed a massive, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by not having a final, stable release in place in time for the death of Windows XP.

Some people are still chasing the dream, however. ReactOS raised more than $25,000 in an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign earlier in 2014, for the development of a community edition of the operating system.

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But I love these projects

This was hard to write. As a geek interested in this stuff, I love watching hobbyist operating systems. I’ve been waiting to try a more mature release of Haiku for a long time, and the goal of ReactOS is so ambitious you can’t help but wish success to its developers. The point of this article is absolutely not to call out and shame the hobbyist developers who use their time to work on inspiring and interesting things. They are awesome people.

All the same, these projects seem stuck in a perpetual alpha state. The goal of creating an awesome operating system for everyone sounds great, but day by day, the already slim chances of Haiku and ReactOS providing that diminish even further. Even Linux distributions like Fedora are accepting they won’t be used by the masses, refocusing on becoming an impressive desktop for developers instead of a mainstream desktop for everyone.

But maybe that’s okay. These projects can just be toys for developers to work on and novelties for users to fire up in a virtual machine. That’s what they are, and they’re still interesting in that role. But they’re not going to take over the world—or even stand up to desktop Linux.

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