Syllable OS developer interview: Building a better operating system

Techworld Australia interviews lead Syllable developer Kaj de Vos

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Although Syllable is a project to create an entirely new OS, the developers try to stick to generally accepted operating system standards and employ other open source projects where possible; the project's site notes that the "low-level system is highly POSIX compatible."

Although the project relies on volunteer programmers, most of whom consider working on the OS to be a hobby, the core developers take a more serious approach. However, de Vos adds: "It may eventually turn out to have been a hobby, but then it was at least a very serious hobby!"

Syllable takes a lot of inspiration from the Amiga's operating system. De Vos explains that what initially attracted people to the Amiga was its hardware — but later on, particularly when it began to be used for tasks other than games, "people discovered that the operating system was equally brilliant".

The developers feel that modern operating systems have headed off track; in part because of the lack of modularity imposed by commercial interests.

"Early systems used to be structured around functional capabilities, such as the tradition of modular command-line programs on Unix-like systems (which Syllable also supports)," he says.

However, "More recent systems are structured around marketable units. As an example, you take a picture. To import it in your computer, you often need programs supplied by the manufacturer of your camera. If you are lucky, you can circumvent these, but why should this be necessary? The software is not even available for any but the most mainstream systems.

"On indoor pictures, you want to remove the 'red eye effect' caused by the flash. On outdoor pictures, you notice the horizon isn't straight and you would like to correct that.

"These are common, but technically complicated manipulations on pictures. The correction of red eyes may be offered by multiple applications on your system. The straightening of horizons may require you to buy yet another image manipulation application.

"Why can't you plug in the camera, have its icon appear on your desktop without extra software and click on it, then click on a picture and be offered one option to correct red eyes and one option to straighten a horizon?

"Because commercial interests like to sell you these basic abilities over and over again in different, overly complex collections called applications."

By way of contrast, he points to the Amiga: "Similar to modular Unix command-line programs, many graphical Amiga programs had standardised interfaces that opened up their capabilities as building blocks that could be mixed and matched.

"Besides greatly increasing flexibility and potential, such frameworks greatly reduce complexity by standardising on shared infrastructure.

"Sadly, even though open source arose from the tradition of Unix building blocks, it has largely failed to develop this ability on user-oriented graphical systems.

"It does exist to some extent in network systems, often because it was already there by building them on the modular Unix system…

"Graphical open source programs tend to mimic the commercial programs they are trying to replace, and have grown equally complex."

The original AtheOS project was begun over a decade ago, and de Vos argues that at the time it was superior to Windows and the desktop Linux offerings.

However, he adds, no matter how "crappy the software on those systems was, there was a lot more of it, and people needed it". Users "cannot use a new system until it supports much of the old software, so you are forced to implement all those legacy features that you wanted to get rid of. This chicken-or-egg problem comes in several well-known forms, such as the need to match hardware drivers and programming languages that competing systems have.

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