A Look at Syllable 0.6.1

Syllable 0.6.1 is the latest incarnation of the operating system that “will be a reliable and easy-to-use GPLed operating system for the home and small office user” as their website states. That’s quite a noble cause most other alternative operating systems never claim to be able to market to non-technical audience one day. Even getting Syllable up and running is pretty easy: fully-working VMWare images and a LiveCD images are provided for free download. Apparently, Danes are the primary downloader of the Syllable LiveCD, given the primary language in which the LiveCD page is by default.

First things first: I was raised on Mac OS 7.5.2. That means my earliest recollections are dealing with Hypercards, not punch cards. But I liked it. The entire contents of the hard drive on that machine could fit on a modern CD-R with a few hundred megabytes to spare, but it worked, and it worked well. I liked how the computer felt like it was supposed to run a GUI. I liked how the applications were simple, yet fully functional and as powerful as they needed to be. In recent systems, it has been hard to find such characteristics in system software “simple, stable, small. Good thing the folks developing Syllable believe in those same principles” but too bad their operating system isn’t even close to being in a usable state yet.

I’m a mostly Linux user at the moment, and my choices in the UNIX world reflect the aspects I learned to love. GNOME vs. KDE? Xfce. emacs vs. vi? nano. Firefox vs. Opera? well, more Firefox. It’s so refreshing, then, to learn of a project aiming to make an operating system that includes all necessary aspects of a modern operating system while integrating a desktop environment in a small, fast package. Not just an operating system for Mac OS 7 lovers, per se, but quite a different approach to take as Vista and GNOME/KDE continue to crawl.

AtheOS, the foundation of the Syllable OS, was a project started many years ago, described in detail on the now defunct (and apparently somewhat hacked) atheos.cx. The descriptions of what it was to have are incredible, given that the development was done mostly by a team of one: a 64-bit journaled file system, a desktop environment integrated into the kernel, a built-in network stack, multithreading, and more. Most of those things are still dreams on desktop operating systems and now that Microsoft has dropped WinFS in the near future, some will continue to be dreams. Syllable’s User’s Bible, found here, preaches these same concepts: a cool file system, no legacy code for old applications, POSIX compliance, speed, and easy development. Sounds great to me! How do I get started?

I decided to give Syllable a test of real? hardware (not a virtual machine’s virtual hardware) and downloaded the LiveCD. To make it even tougher for the little OS, I decided to test it on my laptop, a 1.7 Ghz Pentium M-powered IBM ThinkPad T41p. Given how well Ubuntu Linux runs installed on the machine, I figured that it must use some good-quality, cross-OS-compatible hardware.

Indeed, Syllable booted into a graphical login withing seconds of inserting the CD. I must complain, though, of the choice of background color during boot. White text on a blue screen? Reminiscent of a BSOD, anyone? Combined with the fact that there were just as many error messages as informational ones, the startup sequence could appear a bit scary even to a seasoned Windows user.

Regardless of any first-boot frights, the login screen presented a comfortable area to sign on, similar to the major OSes but with a personality of its own. I thought it looked a bit blurry, and soon realized a few seconds later (the time required to log in) that the monitor resolution was initially set to 640 by 480 pixels. I always run this SXGA+ at 1400×1050 (which provides approximately 4.8 times as much viewing area 640×480), and was therefore puzzled why Syllable could not detect my monitor resolution like Windows and X can — and even if it can’t, why would it it pick 640 by 480? It’s been a long time since I’ve used a monitor at this resolution (perhaps all the way back to OS 7).

No problem, I figured. The screen settings can fix that. And they did, but the system froze when I attempted to change my color depth to 32 bit. I tried this three times (requiring rebooting the system each time – thank goodness for a quick boot) with no success. I guess I can live without 4.2 billion colors for a day.

When first greeted (in 640×480) at the desktop, the view is similar to an upside-down Windows desktop: the taskbar, excuse me, the “dock” is on top, containing the Syllable menu with all of the installed applications, preferences, and actions. Fedora Core and Red Hat Linux users will notice that the icons are from the same Bluecurve set as their desktops. I happen to like the Bluecurve icons, with their matching top-left-corner perspective, but quite frankly, they made Syllable feel like a dinky Linux replacement, which it clearly is not attempting to be. Given the relatively small set of icons that Syllable requires, it shouldn’t be too unreasonable to develop their own fresh icon set.

The developers might want to modify the rest of the look-and-feel as well. Despite what the site screenshots may show, the font anti-aliasing was lacking at all resolutions; many phrases were blurry almost to the point of illegibility. The window title bars in the default theme contain buttons for close in the top left, and minimize (to the dock), fill screen, and send in front of/behind other windows at the top right. Strangely, there’s no “restore”? button to make a maximized window back to its original size — a feature necessary for efficient multi-tasking. Menu selection looks strange, as there is a bit of space to the left of each menu item but the text practically falls off the right side. Perhaps I’m being a bit critical of the superficial looks of the desktop, but considering that the desktop is integrated into the kernel, and considering the market for whom Syllable is supposed to be, the desktop look-and-feel can matter just as much as the internals.

Application-wise, Syllable is highly disappointing, Included is what seems to be buggy, feature-incomplete versions of the contents of the Windows Accessories folder. The Whisper e-mail client is one of the few programs that seems decent (which probably explains why it is one of the only applications on the Syllable desktop with a 1.0 version number, albeit an alpha); it’s got that simple-but-efficient philosophy working well for it, with a Thunderbird-like layout with a much lesser footprint.

The rest of the applications all suffer from that lack of functionality. AEdit looks very similar to GNOME’s gedit, but doesn’t have all the nice touches that can be necessary when editing code or just typing some notes. I’ve never played a game like Inci before, which involves moving connected dots with the mouse such that no connections overlap, but it gets exceedingly infuriating after a short amount of time; of course, I wouldn’t blame that on the developers. The file manager is seriously lacking in capabilities. The file system structure itself is just standard UNIX for the most part, but trying to browse it graphically is unsatisfying: no tree view, no location bar, not even cut/copy/paste commands in sight. I love Thunar, the new file manager for the upcoming Xfce 4.4 desktop, in its simplicity and extendability; I was expecting something similar for the simple Syllable desktop. Instead, there’s just a folder browsing window with a back/forward/up/home toolbar. Not acceptable.
I was also highly surprised to see a complete lack of sample media on the CD. The LiveCD is supposed to highlight the capabilities of the operating system, and there’s not a single audio file or photograph to be found on the disc. There’s no floppy drive here, my network wasn’t detected, and my hard drive partitions aren’t listed — so without further hacking, I don’t have any access to my own media, either.

Many of the applications still have their AtheOS naming: AEdit, ABrowse, Albert, etc. With the name Syllable, they should come up with something kute and korny like KDE’s Konqueror and Kontact, but with a literary theme. I can see it now: Paragraph Spreadsheet! Homophone VoIP! I’m not sure they’d go for it.

After half a dozen crashes, I was through. It’s disappointing, really, how an operating system suitable for day-to-day use in the twenty-first century requires worldwide teams of developers, decades of work, and millions of dollars in marketing (for some). An operating system is a complicated project, though, and I can’t deny that Syllable has made more than a dent in progress. They’ve made a fully (mostly, if you count boot) graphical desktop with a small set of applications (more available here) in a system that can even run on a modern laptop. Performance-wise, Syllable is stupendous, even on a LiveCD (a medium which is normally slower (Ubuntu Dapper’s LiveCD is painful on most machines). If only it could stay up and running at something other than 640 by 480.

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