posted by Thom Holwerda on Mon 4th Jul 2005 19:15 UTC
IconThere are many 'really alternative' operating systems currently in existence. Most of them are purely for research, personal enjoyment or as a coding sandbox. Some of them, however, want to achieve wider acceptance. Is that goal obtainable, in the current OS climate?

If you look at the state of the operating system world today, it is fairly easy to name the operating systems that have gained mainstream acceptance (which doesn't mean that it has to have a huge market share). We all know the likes of Windows, OS X, the BSDs and the Linuxes. They all have their dedicated userbase, steady development process, and none of them will go away for a long time to come.

Then there are those who are in a much more difficult position. Names that pop up are BeOS, AmigaOS, and MorphOS, among others. Even though they all have a user/fanbase, the development process can be jerky, and their respective futures are everything but certain.

The third group consists of the ones I named in the first paragraph; the hobby operating systems. I will focus on two of these: Syllable and SkyOS. Both have a very clearly defined goal: getting a hold of your desktop. Will they ever achieve that goal? I highly doubt it.

Getting market acceptance isn't merely a case of offering a better product than your competitors. Many perfectly fine operating systems have in the past failed to gain a serious foothold, like AmigaOS or BeOS. Two good operating systems (with their fair share of weaknesses as well, obviously), yet they never got off of the ground in the way that Linux or Windows has.

SkyOS and Syllable both want to achieve the same goal, however, they are walking different paths. SkyOS is a closed-source, non-free (both as in money as in freedom) operating system, whereas Syllable is open-source (GPL) and free (also as in money) This gives Syllable a head start when you look at two important factors: driver availability, and developer participation.

Syllable can drink from a large pool of drivers: Linux drivers. This is a major advantage, not to be neglected. SkyOS must resort to either BSD drivers, or write their own from scratch. While there's no reason for BSD code to be of any less quality than Linux code, the fact remains that Linux has a larger installed base, larger development community/company backing, and therefor more common knowledge that you can use. In fact, almost every driver for Syllable has been borrowed from Linux, whereas every driver for SkyOS has been coded from scratch.

The second factor has to do with developer participation. Because Syllable is open in every sense of the word, it is easy for developers to join and contribute to the project. They can look at the code before joining, making sure it's their cup of tea. The entry barrier is very low. This means that in theory, when actively promoted, it is far easier for Syllable to get new developers than it is for their closed-source counterpart. A developer interested in SkyOS cannot look at the code, he or she cannot check if SkyOS is their cup of tea. As a consequence, they might look for other projects to contribute to. Why would they pay money to join a project, when there are similar project elsewhere which they can join for free? And, look at the codebase before opening their mouths, so that they don't look like a fool when they do?

However, all is not lost for SkyOS. While the fact that it is closed-source is a disadvantage at one side, it is also an advantage on the other side. Because it is closed-source, they will more easily be able to focus on their goals. When something needs to be done, there won't be endless mailing-list threads and forum discussions before someone actually writes down some code. When the SkyOS team decides that feature X must go in, it goes in. That is a major advantage over open development constructions because it can speed up the development process.

Another advantage that SkyOS has over Syllable is the fact that companies are more willing to work with another company than with 'merely' a group of developers. There is no 'central place' to resort to when for instance hardware companies want to support Syllable; whereas the SkyOS team is trying to set-up a company behind the project. It will give SkyOS more legitimacy. Whether that legitimacy is based on anything is debatable, though.

Syllable being open-source also has a flip side: it puts them in direct competition with something you don't really want to compete with in the current OS climate: Linux. For us geeks it's quite obvious that Syllable is a whole different animal than Linux, even though it shares some of its characteristics. However, for most others that difference is not so obvious. Being open source and free (in both meanings of the word) is for them a trait intertwined with Linux, and so Syllable might not be able to set itself apart.

If you add all that up, then it's quite easy to see why both will have a hard time in gaining serious market acceptance. SkyOS will lack developers, whereas Syllable will have a hard problem retaining focus and development speed, and they have to watch out for not being thrown upon the same pile as the Linux distributions.

Other than that, there are other reasons why it will be hard, if not impossible, for them to gain a foothold. First of all, the western market is saturated. There now are three major contenders fighting for your desktop (Linux, Windows and OS X), and seeing how long it took for Linux to even become a reasonable alternative (and some would argue that it's not reasonable, but that's besides the point), it's going to be double as hard and take double as long for a fourth and maybe even fifth contender to make any serious strides.

Some say that the developing world provides a big opportunity. I highly doubt that. Where are SkyOS and Syllable going to get the financial resources to create distribution networks in those countries? Remember that in those countries, people don't already have access to the internet so that they can learn about SkyOS and Syllable on OSNews. For heavyweights like Microsoft this is much more trivial.

Conclusion

It is going to be hard, if not impossible, for new operating systems to get broader mainstream acceptance. The climate that currently exists in the world of operating systems basically prohibits any newcomer to challenge the establishment.

Personally, I find this a bad thing. I'd much rather see numerous competitors challenging each other, leading to improvements and true innovation, with in the end the user as the winner.

--Thom Holwerda


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