Developer Q&A: Syllable OS

Syllable developer Kaj de Vos

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Is there really space for another OS, particularly a desktop system? On the one hand you have non-free systems like Windows and OS X, and on the other hand you have well-known open source operating systems like Linux-based OSes and the various BSDs — what kind of niche is Syllable trying to fill?

This is a logical question for an outsider to ask, but our perspective from within the project is different. It used to be that a new operating system could be developed in a few years, but for a modern system it takes one or two decades to mature. This is not due to the core system, but due to the need to support many legacy features of older systems that software relies on.

Before you have those you can run your own software, but not the software that competing systems have. So people will say you are behind. AtheOS started more than a decade ago, and it had some brilliant applications of its own that other systems could not match. It was clear that the operating system was superior, especially compared to Windows and desktop Linux, which were an obvious mess back then (albeit for different reasons).

But however crappy the software on those systems was, there was a lot more of it, and people needed it. They 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.

In other words, when we started the project, the reasons for it were clear. Everyone and their dog were complaining they wanted better operating systems. Based on that, we had hoped for more support than we ended up getting.

Syllable OS screenshot


Most people called it a great project and then went back to their tired old mainstream systems. The only alternative system they really rallied around was Linux, because they could already use it on their servers.

They went to an amazing amount of trouble to clean up the huge mess in desktop Linux somewhat, even though Syllable could have brought them much farther, much sooner if given the same support.

This is an unfortunate product of human nature, but I think it was worth the attempt. Especially back then, and now still, internet collaboration and open source were a large-scale human experiment.

A lot has changed since then, and the situation is now less clear. Some windows of opportunity have closed, but on the other hand, through our persistent hard work, we are a lot closer to offering people a mature system they can use. The trends have also validated our strategic choices.

Back then, it was an open question whether open source would make it. This issue is now mostly settled. The remaining question is how big its market share can grow.

Technically, we have proven that we can make a much more efficient, much more integrated system, while still using many of the same software components that other open source systems use.

In the Western world, it is often assumed that software efficiency does not matter, because improving hardware will compensate for it.

Yet during the lifetime of the project we have seen the introduction of small mobile systems such as netbooks and smartphones, which have effectively turned back the clock for hardware performance that software needs to support half a decade.

This has wreaked havoc on the development plans of many platform vendors, forcing them to develop entirely new systems. Syllable, however, is already efficient enough to support such systems with one platform.

When new hardware is introduced, we obviously have the problem of catching up with supporting it. But on the other hand, Syllable improves all the time by just integrating newer versions of software components from third-party projects. Companies are releasing ever more of their work as open source, so the trend is with us.

You could say that too many windows of opportunity have closed, but a lot more will change and there will be new ones. An operating system is a precious thing, because it is so hard to develop one.

Only a handful of modern systems have reached the level of functionality that Syllable has. You could say that we should focus on some niche, but because operating system development takes so long these days, it is pretty much impossible to know what your niche will be in the future.

Therefore, we stick to our goal of developing general purpose systems that are extra efficient, so they can go places where other systems cannot go. This does not necessarily have to be on the desktop. We support a server system as well as the desktop system, and because they are both nimble either of them could be developed into a mobile platform. We think it is a great advantage that Syllable can span such platforms, and are certainly reaping the benefits in our own use of them.

Do you see yourself trying to offer a genuine alternative for desktops, or is it more of a case of a hobbyist OS where development is its own goal?

The stated goal of AtheOS was to be a hobby OS, where development was for its own sake. The main reason for starting Syllable, apart from saving the project in the first place, was to make it a serious attempt at a usable system, because it had the potential to be such a system.

It is different for different volunteers, because most of them are still working on Syllable as a hobby, and that is okay.

But the core developers have always made it a point to work in a more industrious manner and integrate the work of the more occasional contributors. It may eventually turn out to have been a hobby, but then it was at least a very serious hobby!

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