Developer Q&A: Syllable OS

Syllable developer Kaj de Vos

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How big is the development community around Syllable? Is it easy for people to contribute directly to the core elements of the operating system, or is it more of a case that if people want to be involved they should start developing (or porting) other software to work on the platform?

Our community of contributors is really small; it's currently just a handful of people. Many more people have contributed over the years, but they tend to come and go.

The number of users is hard to estimate. Some of our releases have been downloaded by several tens of thousands of people, but we do not know how many people got through the installation and how many kept using their installations, or the live CDs. It seems clear that interest is there, but that we should improve those conversion rates.

There is also a clear opportunity for people who would like to get into system development. Still, there are hurdles to overcome.

The project has a substantial history and a specific design, so one cannot just contribute to the core system in anyway one pleases. The goal of the project is to guard its integral design.

This often turns out to be a problematic issue for volunteers, who are motivated by following their own ideas and customs.

It is also important to understand that contributors should have a high level of self-reliance: We will support you, but we cannot teach you software development, for example.

A volunteer does not really contribute if he ties up the few other volunteers we have. This sounds harsh, and it can conflict with the viewpoint of hobbyists, but we can only do this project if we focus on our productivity.

Syllable OS screenshot


It is much easier to contribute to Syllable in areas at some distance from the core design: A modular operating system has tremendous opportunity for parallel development.

Device drivers and other plug-ins to the core frameworks are always highly appreciated.

Applications can be well or less well integrated with the system's design, but in any case they will not interfere with the work on the core system. While doing this, one will gradually learn Syllable's design and history, and become more qualified to work on the core.

The server version of Syllable is based on the Linux kernel -- what was the thinking behind this? Can users expect any particular advantages from using it as opposed to just a standard Linux distro (other than a consistent interface when the Syllable GUI is added)?

A Linux system adds value to the Syllable family. Syllable Desktop is optimised for responsiveness, while Linux has a much better raw throughput performance. We could optimise Desktop for that, but it would be a lot of hard work that would not help the user oriented role much, and at some point it would start to conflict with responsive performance.

Further, Desktop is not stable enough yet to act in a serious server role. Linux has many server specific drivers that do not really make sense to port to Desktop.

Linux is supported in many places, some of which Desktop currently cannot go, such as virtual server providers that run the Linux kernel on hypervisors such as Xen.

Compared to other Linux systems, Server currently makes a bare-bones impression.

However, it is much less complex than most other Linux systems, because we made it as much as possible like Desktop.

Without our experience creating Desktop, Linux would have steered us into much more complex directions. Although it currently looks primitive, this already makes Server much easier to handle and customise.

Finally, could you give me some background on you as a developer? How did you get involved in Syllable and what's your role in the project now?

I found AtheOS 10 years ago in a Linux magazine, about half a year before Syllable started. At the time, I was frantically studying Linux because I had to use it in my work, where it caused me serious problems due to its complex and incoherent nature.

I really agreed with its philosophy, but not with the result.

AtheOS was a revelation that promised to fix everything that I found wrong with Linux. I was a groupware consultant and developer specialising in Lotus Notes — another highly integrated platform that had no counterpart in open source.

I added one and one together and made it my goal to ease into open source on AtheOS and implement groupware on it. This combination gave me a rather specific outlook on each element: open source, AtheOS, Linux and groupware.

I taught myself how to port software to AtheOS, searching for information through the permanent internet connection that I acquired only shortly before.

When the Syllable community project was announced, I volunteered. In the first place to design a build system, because I saw how integration of disparate components would be essential to reaching the goals.

Because this touches all parts of the system, my personal goal of learning about open source and system development was a success. I also seem to be a persistent person, because after a decade I am still here.

Many other contributors dropped out over time for all sorts of reasons. Several of their responsibilities fell to me, and all in all I am now leading the project.

Follow Rohan Pearce on Twitter: @rohan_p

Follow Techworld Australia on Twitter: @techworld_au

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