Developer Q&A: Syllable OS

Syllable developer Kaj de Vos

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For the perspective of an end user, what is the appeal that would lead them to use Syllable (apart from the novelty of trying something new)?

Syllable's design and implementation make the most of the available hardware resources. Both Syllable Desktop and Syllable Server can run on much smaller machines than other modern operating systems. They start faster, often perform faster and use less memory and disk space.

If you can use lower powered hardware, this saves time and money. If you can afford more powerful hardware, it still leaves more hardware resources available for running your applications.

Some people think this is not important, but this is only so in limited circumstances, mainly where you can afford a powerful desktop computer. On mobile systems, battery power is very limited, so a frugal system will let you use it longer.

Modern server systems are heavily loaded with many concurrent users, and any savings mean you can service more users with less power consumption.

But most of all, the world is in a process of building this huge collective network, a hive mind if you will, that we call the internet. It will not be finished until all people in the world are connected to it, and we are only at about a fifth of the population yet.

The remaining people are the hardest to connect, because they cannot currently afford it. There is no limit to the kind of savings that would help them to get connected and enjoy the benefits of the collective network. It is well known how, for example, the One Laptop Per Child project was delayed and had to double its projected price point and its hardware specifications because the Linux operating system they developed could not support them. This would not be necessary when using Syllable.

For organisations, but also home networks, many of them are now in a transitional situation where they are still using Windows on their desktops, but want to use Linux on their servers. This is often a stretch for the people involved, because they have to learn and support two entirely different systems and try to do integration between them. Some organisations have tried Linux on their desktops but have found that it fell short of their needs. Sometimes this also keeps Linux off their servers for practical or even political reasons. We think it is easier to have similar systems on desktops and servers, so we provide both to pick and choose from as people need.

There are more fundamental advantages, as well, that the practical advantages stem from. Syllable accomplishes its savings by consistently reducing complexity. One of the ways to do that is by improving integration.

Another goal of Syllable is to be easier to use. Improved integration and reduced complexity help with that. A system that is easier to use is more pleasant to use. It increases motivation, removes hurdles, and leads to saving time and money.

Complexity is a serious problem in our modern world. It limits what individuals and organisations can do, because they have a limited capacity to deal with complexity.

Complexity tends to grow and seldom diminishes. Ultimately, it makes us loose control over our systems and does things such as bringing down our world's financial system. Syllable's end goal is to expand what you can do by making more functionality fit within your cognitive abilities.

[The Syllable project maintains a list of the operating system's advantages.]

How mature would you consider Syllable at the moment?

Syllable is decidedly in a glass-half-full-half-empty state. When we started with AtheOS, it was more or less in a proof-of-concept state where it supported its own software and just a few hardware drivers but hadn't bothered yet with many extra features that are expected on other systems.

The Syllable project has been going long enough that we have added support for most of these extras, and have used them to port and upgrade many more third-party software components.

We also spent a lot of effort on professionalising the project. For example, building AtheOS from its source code wasn't reproducible, because it was set up as a one-man project.

Syllable made it a collaborative community project. We did other heavy lifting to set up our strategic goals, such as creating our Syllable Server Linux system.

Considerable effort was also spent on creating applications, but we always knew we would need help to make it anything more than a drop in a bucket.

When we started, the open source mantra was "If you build it, they will come", but this has failed us miserably. We worked to build the best base system we could for application developers, but they never came.

We learned that this only works for the top few projects in a category, and then only if they can already be used for real work, both in technical terms and political terms. An operating system project is nowadays well outside the attention span of both hobbyists and companies.

We could port applications from other systems, but this is a serious strategic problem, because much of the benefit of Syllable depends on its application platform.

The Syllable operating system can add value to alien software, but there is a definite limit to that, especially when it comes to application software.

We support some of the simpler third-party application platforms, such as SDL, but we are very picky about them. To get more software, we would have to port highly complex platforms, such as GTK and Qt. These are huge tasks in themselves.

We have never been against this per se, as an addition to our own applications, but we have never had time for it, either — having our hands full with Syllable itself. Some people think it is a trivial requirement, but over time several people have claimed to want to do such things on Syllable, never to be heard from again.

All in all, Syllable may currently look a little barren, because it has few applications. There may also be hurdles to overcome during installation, because it does not work on all computers and may need some extra settings on others.

This impression does not do justice to Syllable's inner values as an operating system, because so far we have spent most of our efforts on the base system instead of on applications.

People who do recognise those values tend to be amazed at what we have accomplished so far. In other words, it is an excellent platform to build applications on or port them from other systems.

If you do your own development, maybe because you build special purpose systems, chances are that Syllable is ready to be a base for it. The applications that Syllable does have are suitable for use by people who like fast, efficient systems or who have limited options; for example, because they cannot afford new or powerful computers or want to keep their old ones in use.

We need more people who will take us up on this proposition. For example, one of our volunteers recently started porting SDL applications to Syllable and has done about 80 of them already in a short period of time. It really depends on one's attitude: If you are willing to make some effort, Syllable is able to do many things for you.

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