Habits are hard to break. Especially if they are a part of an essential daily routine. Even though most consumers can’t imagine their life without an established operating system, there’s a whole world of alternative OSs.
If you’re reading this, there’s a high probability the machine you’re reading this text on runs on either Android, Windows, macOS, or a Linux operating system. Estimates show that ‘other’ OSs make up less than 2% of the global market share for consumer devices.
That means that 98% of it is either Windows or a Unix-based system as Android, macOS, and Linux are all Unix-based to some degree.
That, of course, does not mean there are no alternatives. Pre-loaded OS like Windows or macOS is anything but light and snappy. There are toolbars, sidebars, taskbars, apps, and a trove of seemingly unnecessary notifications clogging up machines and stealing our attention.
That’s why capable developers, similarly to their esoteric-leaning brethren, have made multiple attempts to create light, clean, and distraction-free environments that could potentially free users from the self-imposed shackles of OSs the world has gotten used to.
Our work will not ever define the future of operating systems, but what it does do is undermine the monotone machinery of the competition,Niels Sascha Reedijk.
What’s an OS?
Since Windows, macOS, or Linux have become household names, the term “operating system” can be confused with one of the most popular OSs. That’s why before we dive into the world of alternative operating systems, it might be helpful to understand what an OS is in the first place.
To grossly oversimplify, an operating system makes a useless plastic box of wires and microchips an irreplaceable tool of the modern age. An OS allows us, the users, to communicate with the computer in a language that it understands.
In essence, no matter which OS runs on a given machine, it manages all of the software and hardware of a said machine, coordinating which programs have access to a CPU, memory, and storage.
That means that hardware developers do not need to worry about what components will be installed on a given machine. They need to create a piece of software (device drivers) that a particular OS understands. Then, it’s the OS’s job to make sure that different components work together smoothly.
For example, if a user opens an internet browser X, its software sends out a call to OS’s memory manager. The operating system, in turn, translates the request to a language that the hardware understands, and the OS allocates a necessary amount of memory for the browser to run on.
All of this means that an ‘operating system’ is anything that can complete a particular set of tasks and does not automatically imply Android, Linux, or some other well-known OS. With that out of the way, let’s dive into the world of OSs that are not related to Windows or Unix systems.
Released in 1995 by Be Inc., BeOS is one of the ‘could-have-beens’ of computing history. Initially designed to run AT&T Hobbit hardware, BeOS was later repurposed to fit Be Inc’s own BeBox hardware. In the spirit of 90’s computing, BeOS was supposed to be a game-changer multimedia platform able to compete with Windows and Classic Mac OS.
At the time, Be Inc’s confidence did not seem out of place as the driving forces behind the company were Apple’s former vice president for product development Jean-Louis Gassée and creator of the Apple Newton, Steve Sakoman. The duo’s names were enough to get the industry to take note of BeOS.
Unlike market competitors, BeOS developers started from scratch, creating the newly minted OS with no legacy code. The operating system was designed to accommodate the emerging need for digital video and audio specifically.
Be Inc. aimed very high for the time. The OS supported multiprocessor machines, had a built-in database to support digital multimedia recordings, and had a revolutionary lightweight design, allowing for boot time of around 10 seconds.
Since few people have heard of BeOS, it’s obvious the OS didn’t succeed. In hindsight, however, the history could have been very different. Back in 1996, Apple, Inc. offered to buy the company and use BeOS as the core for the new Macintosh OS. However, BeOS’s owners were not satisfied with the $120 million offer.
After hearing about the offer, another former Apple member did not hesitate. Thus, Apple bought Steve Jobs’s NeXT, which became a basis for Mac OS X, paving the way for Apple to be at the forefront of the modern tech landscape.
Left to its own devices, Be Inc. slowly dwindled, dying five years after the refusal to marry into Apple. BeOS, however, started a life of its own.
After Be, Inc. changed hands in 2001 to become a part of Palm, Inc., several developers of BeOS continued with an open-source version of the operating system called OpenBeOS. Due to trademark issues, developers changed the name of the OS to Haiku in 2004. The initial release of the OS is considered to be 2002.
As of April 2021, Haiku OS is in beta version, with the latest release made available to download in June 2020. In line with the spirit of BeOS, creators of Haiku claim to accommodate multiprocessor CPUs, object-oriented API for faster development, and a custom kernel.
Unlike more common open-source OSs like Linux, Haiku is developed by a single team writing everything from kernel to desktop applications. Far from the ambitious BeOS, Haiku serves more as an exercise for thought, reminding that not all OSs have to be the same.
“We are a ‘queer’ project that is developing a queer operating system. This is what we should keep in mind. Our work will not ever define the future of operating systems, but what it does do is undermine the monotone machinery of the competition. It is in this niche that we can operate best,” Niels Sascha Reedijk, one of the OS developers, said in 2010.
Another blast-from-the-past operating system, AmigaOS, has been around since 1985. Developed by the legendary computer manufacturer Commodore, the first iteration of the AmigaOS ran on an era-defining PC, the Amiga 1000.
AmigaOS was praised for its multitasking capabilities and aversion to memory hogging at the time of its release. Even in 1996, AmigaOS’s size was around 1MB – an unimaginably small measurement for an OS from a modern perspective.
At the time, AmigaOS required the Motorola 68000 series microprocessor, an old rival of Intel’s x86. The OS was based on a kernel called Exec that included an application programming interface (API) called Intuition and a desktop file manager named Workbench.
Since Commodore International went bust back in 1994, AmigaOS outlived its creator. Since 2001, AmigaOS has been developed by the Belgian software company, Hyperion Entertainment which used to be in partnership with the Commodore in the early ’90s.
The latest version of the OS, AmigaOS 4.1, was released in 2008, with the latest significant update released as recently as January 2021. Even with a significantly diminished use, AmigaOS is still maintained and used by a dedicated following in the PC community.
Even though creating an OS is a monumental task, it doesn’t require a laboratory of hackers to create one. Enter: MenuetOS, an operating system written primarily by Ville M. Turjanmaa and Madis Kalme back in 2000.
“Menuet isn’t based on other operating systems, nor has it roots within UNIX or the POSIX standards. The design goal has been to remove the extra layers between different parts of an OS, which normally complicate programming and create bugs,” states the dedicated site for the OS.
The defining feature of the operating system is its size. ManuetOS is just 1.4 MB in size, making it fit into a floppy disk (the “save” icon if you’re under 20). For comparison, the size of Windows XP was around 1.5 GB.
Impressively, MenuetOS is no thought experiment. To illustrate the point, the operating system ships with shareware versions of legendary games ’Quake’ and ‘Doom’. The OS allows pre-emptive and real-time multitasking with multiprocessor support and Graphical User Interface.
The secret sauce behind the small size of MenuetOS is the way it’s written. Creators of the OS wrote it entirely in FASM, an assembly (asm) language. This type of programming language is almost exactly like the machine code that a computer can understand, except it uses words instead of numbers.
Needless to say, writing a fully functioning OS in asm is a monumental task. Something akin to building a house with your bare hands. Even though the operating system is written in an assembly language, authors claim it’s not reserved for asm programming.
The latest release of MenuetOS was published in June 2020.
Released in 2004, KolibriOS is a spin-off of MenuetOS. Truthful to its name, Kolibri is as lightweight as MenuetOS, fitting inside a floppy disk. Written similarly to its cousin, Kolibri has a boot time of around 3 seconds and is equipped with every necessary item to make it resemble a functional OS for the eyes of a non-expert.
“Kolibri features a rich set of applications that include a word processor, image viewer, graphical editor, web browser, and well over 30 exciting games,” states the authors of the operating system.
The OS has FAT12/16/32 support implemented and read-only support for NTFS, ISO9660, and Ext2/3/4. Drivers are written for popular sound, network, and graphics cards. Impressively, the kernel for the OS weighs less than 100 kilobytes.
The OS is fully functional and maintained by a dedicated community that released the latest update back in January of 2021.
Another OS born in a home office rather than the company HQ, is the Visual Operating System or Visopsys for short, written by Andy McLaughlin in 1997. Visopsys runs on 32-bit IA-32 architecture, uses a monolithic kernel, and was written in the C programming language.
“Visopsys (VISual OPerating SYStem) is an alternative operating system for PC-compatible computers, written “from scratch”, and developed primarily by a single hobbyist programmer since 1997,” claims a dedicated site for the OS.
Created to be more of a statement than a commercial project, the author of Visopsys aims to pick the best ideas from other operating systems. McLaughlin claims that the key selling point for potential users is a reasonably functional partition management program.
“Other operating systems can do more than Visopsys; it doesn’t include many applications. Needless to say, it’s not as good as Linux or even SkyOS or Syllable. On the other hand, it’s still primarily a one-person project,” claims the author of Visopsys.
The latest version of the OS, Visopsys 0.9, was released in April 2020.
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