As many of my readers have probably figured out, I am a fan of the stuff that’s “out there.” You don’t even have to use it. It doesn’t need to be something that will necessarily set the world on fire. If there’s passion in its development and design, I’m pretty much on board. And I can’t wait to try it.
To understand the philosophy behind Haiku, it’s a good idea to examine the word. Of course, it is the Japanese word referring to a short poem in which you have two philosophical, often conflicting, elements. It is also defined as the essence of the act of cutting, which is translated as the Japanese word “kiru”. No, I don’t speak Japanese but I really, really like sushi; and that has nothing to do with anything.
And Haiku (current version being alpha 4.1) is so far away from the norm that I don’t know where to begin describing it other than by giving a brief history. Its roots are in BeOS, a simple, yet highly functional operating system development effort headed by Jean-Luise Gassee in 1990. At the time, the company Be Inc. was designing the OS to run on a personal computer they dubbed BeBox.
Gassee was a former Apple Computer executive who was “run outta the building” by then-CEO John Sculley. Undeterred, Gassee decided to take a lot of the design aesthetics of the classic MacIntosh design philosophy into a C++ coded operating system. It was pretty (for the time) and it worked well. It began to gain a following, and even though the BeBox wasn’t a commercial success, it was being incorporated into hardware from Sony and the like.
In 1996, Apple came a-knocking and hoping to find a new system to replace the aging Mac OS. At the time, BeOS and NeXTSTEP, the OS from Apple-ousted Steve Jobs’ company NeXT PC, were vying to be the next Apple crown jewel. Of course, NeXTSTEP was purchased and ripped apart for the following iterations of Mac, eventually evolving to the OS X brand.
BeOS was still alive. Kinda. But things weren’t the same afterward. Eventually, they were purchased by Palm, Inc., makers of the legendary Palm Pilot handheld organizers. Elements from the BeOS aesthetic were showing up in Palm OS, with their “cartoony” icons and pillar-y window frames. Palm eventually gave the public some of the first incarnations of the smartphone, with resistive touchscreen functionality and hard keys that were like baby corncob kernels. My thumbs still hurt thinking about it.
Now the legend of BeOS lives on with Haiku. And yes, I realize I just went several paragraphs only mentioning Haiku twice.
Now, to understand this OS, you need an appreciation of its history. Let’s start visually; Here’s a screenshot of a typical BeOS desktop screen:
Now, here’s a screenshot of the Haiku desktop:
It’s pretty easy to spot the influence in the aesthetic. But it’s in the actual functionality where Haiku aims to carry the BeOS philosophy and make the improvements the user needs.For one thing, Haiku’s file system is structured like a small database, each function performing a query for an event. With the system being as low-overhead and efficient as it is, this is easily accomplished.
It also doesn’t have a lot of the luxury appointments as many of today’s operating systems. You won’t find window transparency or crazy, wobbly animations that we all enjoy. (Come on. You like them.) It truly is like the “essence” of today’s operating systems.
That doesn’t mean it’s “boring” or “ugly”. On the contrary, looking at the Haiku desktop is a “feel good”moment and I’m one who loves his dark theme. It’s colorful and breezy, but without being obnoxious about it. It’s as though the overhead appointments aren’t really sacrifices for speed alone. It seems to leave room for the user to think. And develop. More on that in a bit.
This is not Linux
While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s also a very different thing that may make some of the less adventurous Linux users shy away from the experience. And that’s too bad because different can be fun. For starters, you’re not going to see icons like these anywhere else. It’s a real headtrip back into the 90’s. You’ve got exaggerated curvatures and subtle gradients. Pieces of paper look like they’re in motion. Pencils and mailboxes that look like they were used by the America Online “You’ve got mail!” guy. It’s a bit of grade school bulletin board art meeting classic advertising style. This was an era when things were still being called high-tech and made no apologies for trying to show us what they thought the future was going to look like. Haiku incorporates this with a loving hand. Its classic simplicity yet it maintains a style that’s classically its own. Even the pointer looks like the severed, floating hand of Mickey Mouse (minus the gore, of course).
Haiku, like a few Linux distros we know, is extremely lightweight. The decompressed .iso weighs in at a mere 615 MB, small enough to fit on a CD-ROM. Remember those?
Installing it on a modern processor with 4 GB RAM and an SSD shouldn’t take you more than a couple of minutes. Don’t wait for a punchline. I had this up and running in Boxes faster than I could think of a password. Of course, this tells me that on older, slower devices, Haiku is something to at least be considered. Well…it could be. I’ll get to that in a bit.
What really made me happy was that it worked with my hardware, all of it, at the crack of the bat. I’ve been known to throw an OS right out the window when some things don’t work. I’m not kidding. If I have to spend hours trying to connect to my wireless network, it’s back to metal. It’s times like these when you can really appreciate the simplicity of an OS.
Apps? Is there an echo in here?
Actually…no! Haiku comes with a surprising number of apps. However, I have to get the bad out of the way first; there’s no productivity suite. And that made me really sad. I was really hoping to be able to write this piece natively in Haiku on an actual word processor. Although there are a few threads I’ve found where contributions and development for such a suite have been discussed, nothing is final. There.
Let’s start with web browsing, WebPositive. Thematically, WebPositive is fun and is consistent with Haiku’s cool and vibrant aesthetic. It delivers a considerable amount of rendering power. Going to some of the websites I tend to frequent, like Blizzard.com or Newsarama was surprisingly nice trip, which means it’s good at rendering some sites that are relatively heavy on content and plug-ins. YouTube, however, was a different story as it was unable to play anything. Not a dealbreaker. But if going to a favorite news site is what you really want, where you can, you know, read the news, it does the job really well.
I can’t live without music. I have a strong preference to very, very old Black Sabbath. So I was pleased to see that I only had to drag my Snowblind mp3 file directly over to the player interface and it was ready to play instantly. Building playlists is also very easy. You can also randomize and delete files with ease. If you’re in the unenviable position of having to conserve CPU cycles (!) you can switch over to a hardware mode and cut some overhead.
Playing video files has pretty much the same functionality. It natively covers mp4 and .avi. Fullscreen and subtitling are also supported. Framerates are smooth and the low overhead on an overkill system will do the job with nary a sweat broken.
What surprised me was the inclusion of a video converter in which a range of video filetypes can be compiled into a more palatable format of your choosing.
System tools are plentiful, including a CPU monitor, boot manager, debugger, calculator, can opener (no, not really). It has a truly decent e-mail client, as well and it’s packed with features you’d expect from some of the most well-known out there. You can even run many native BeOS apps.
So app-wise…eh. BUT there’s no better time to become a developer. There’s always a silver lining. I hope I don’t sound too much like Larry David when I say that.
If you’re feeling nostalgic, there are some really cool surprises inside Haiku. Perhaps the most well known was the OpenGL graphics demo that came with BeOS. In the demo a 3D-rendered, flatshaded teapot will rotate and spin inside a window. A meter at the bottom left of the window displays the frames per second in old-school digital readout fashion. When at default start up, I was getting about…oh…500 or so FPS. However, this was a very reduced window. So I maximized the window and was still getting nearly 80 FPS. In a VM.
It also comes with an analog-style clock that you can move about the desktop by clicking on the lower right-hand corner of the tiny little guy. Clicking elsewhere on the clock window will change the design at random. I, of course, left it at the old “Be” logo selection.
Package management and software repository are works in-progress. Currently, native packages are designated with the .hpkg extension will eventually be downloadable from the HaikuDepot, to which features are currently being added. In the meantime, when an .hpkg is downloaded, they can be moved manually into the ~/config/packages. Full apps should be moved to ~/config/apps. Still, at best, these means are little more than rudimentary, a fact of which the Haiku community is well aware. It will be very interesting to see where the efforts toward a polished repository will lead. I do intend to follow-up on it.
The Essence Suggests Opportunity
Haiku is an environment that is NOT for everybody. It’s NOT for your grandma. It’s for people who really want to get involved in building something with a proven heritage and with an aesthetic and payload where simplicity is law. While I’ve had to suppress my “practical” side a bit when I say that this OS is highly functional and very, very, very fast. It’s not what you want when you want to get in a session of World of Warcraft. It’s a solid base for what could be a contender in the slowly growing pantheon of operating systems. This, I think, is what makes it an alpha, yet not an alpha. It would be better to think of it as what is possibly the most fertile ground you’ll find for development for anyone wants to pitch in. It has two great things going for it in this respect; it has a proven and faithful heritage in an operating system that could’ve been the choice for powering Apple’s systems and it has a growing community of dedicated developers. They really want this to be an alternative that anyone can turn to for work and play. I, for one, believe they can do it. Furthermore, I think it merits a more consistent regard from the community, considering that it’s a true survivor and a very capable effort.