Tired of endless Windows security problems? Intrigued by Linux’s power but discouraged by its complexity? Tempted by Mac OS but not thrilled with the hardware cost? If so, you might want to investigate the growing bunch of hobbyist OSes — Syllable, SkyOS, Haiku, MenuetOS, Visopsys, ReactOS and others. Syllable is perhaps the most promising of them all; it’s a maturing open source desktop OS with an evolving kernel & device driver range, and is targeted at the home/small-office user.
An OS is born
Eagle-eyed OSNews readers will have spotted numerous Syllable articles in recent years, and you may have given early releases a trial run. Similarly, those who were active in the hobbyist OS scene several years ago may have used Syllable in its earlier incarnation — AtheOS. With inspiration and ideas plucked from BeOS, AmigaOS and other systems, Kurt Skauen’s AtheOS began life in 1996 and progressed at a decent pace. Unfortunately, though, interaction between Kurt and other developers often suffered; while some wanted to expand and flesh-out AtheOS into a more versatile system, Kurt preferred to keep it as his own pet project (as he had every right to).
The final straw came in 2002 when Kurt effectively abandoned the project, leaving users and developers with no updates for months and silence on the mailing lists. This prompted a group of devoted AtheOS hackers, led by Kristian Van Der Vliet (aka ‘Vanders’), to fork the project and build a new future on the old groundwork. As an intriguing aside, the name Syllable came about almost by accident: Vanders was considering various names for the fork — pondering how many syllables would be appropriate — when he realised that the word ‘syllable’ itself is snappy and memorable.
Since then, Syllable development has been advancing at a steady rate, with new features, drivers and programs appearing as each month passes. Work has been under way to update glibc and the programming toolchain (GCC and friends), and the desktop is seeing polish and refinement too. So now we have a freely available (GPLed), multitasking desktop OS, with a fully-fledged GUI, network stack, USB drivers, journalling filesystem, SMP support, and a sprinkling of POSIX adherence thrown in for good measure. Quite an achievement.
In this article, we’ll have a look at how the current release shapes up, examining its potential as a desktop OS, and then see what the lead developer has to say about Syllable’s present situation and the road ahead…
Syllable 0.5.3 on test
To run Syllable comfortably, a Pentium 200 MHz with 64M of RAM is required. (It’ll squeeze into a smaller system, but the results won’t be ideal.) Although a bare-bones setup can fit into 100M, around 300M of hard drive space should be fine for general use; however, Syllable won’t install on FAT/NTFS or ext2/3 partitions, so you’ll need to give it some dedicated space. In terms of sound, video and network card support, Syllable sports an impressive array of drivers for most well-known kit — so before you give it a spin, it’s worth checking out the hardware compatibility list first. Virtual machines and emulators (such as VMware and Bochs) can run the OS with a bit of tweaking.
There are two main ways to get Syllable onto your box: you can burn the official release ISO image and boot it to install, or opt for the Live CD. The latter is a superb way to give Syllable a test-drive without changing anything on your hard drive, and also includes an install script if you’re happy with the results. Note, however, that the Live CD is prone to the odd glitch in places — nevertheless, this is only to be expected as the OS isn’t designed for read-only filesystems. BurningShadow, the Live CD’s creator, offers the ISO on his web site along with other goodies.
Syllable’s installer is a simplistic text-based affair that gets the system up and running within a few minutes. Periodically, discussions and proposals for a graphical installer pop up — for now, though, it does the job adequately and cosmetic issues can be dealt with later. If there are no hitches, one reboot later and the Syllable login screen will appear (use “root” for both the username and password).
The need for speed
Unquestionably, the most striking aspect of Syllable’s startup is the sheer speed. It’s fast. In fact, it boots in less than a third of the time Windows XP and Fedora Core take on the same box — and that’s really refreshing to see, considering the bloat afflicting today’s desktop OSes. Some of this can be attributed to Syllable’s relative complexity; it’s not doing quite as much as WinXP and the big Linux distros, but the performance is still remarkable and the OS’s developers are keen to maintain this plus-point.
In the current release (0.5.3), Syllable’s desktop consists of a clunky app-launcher and themeable titlebar controls, in addition to a cross-breed of Win32 and Motif widget styles. Thankfully, the ageing launcher is being thrown out in favour of Dock2 (from Arno Klenke, one of Syllable’s most prolific coding-machines). This slick replacement includes a soft-gradient taskbar and super-friendly file manager, and Red Hat/Fedora users will recognise the crisp Bluecurve icons. It’s orders of magnitude more attractive and pleasant to operate than the old desktop, and brings a fresh lick of paint to the OS. Dock2 will be included with the next Syllable release, but users of the Live CD will find it rolled-in already.
Syllable’s supplied programs include ABrowse, a KHTML-based web browser (slightly dated now, although still usable on basic sites), the Whisper email app, and an IM client in very early stages of development. There’s also a media player, a text editor and an image viewer, along with a handful of configuration tools. This is enough for the base OS, but a whole host of other software can be found at Kamidake — some of them haven’t been updated since the days of AtheOS though.
As can be seen in the third screenshot, Syllable is also capable of running a few server tools; currently Apache, ProFTPd, BIND and some others have been ported, and thanks to the GNU toolchain and POSIX-ish design, it shouldn’t be hard to get more servers (or newer versions of those mentioned) working too. Developers will be chuffed to find a comprehensive command-line, with Bash and GNU Coreutils available, and a couple of IDEs are making respectable progress. The software side of things is slightly lacking in Syllable right now, with a bunch of great apps that need updating, and others that need coding from scratch.
Still, this is where the hobbyist OSes can shine for outside developers. There are gaps in the software range, waiting for someone to fill them with coding talent, although you don’t need to be a guru to contribute — it’s all documented quite thoroughly. The opportunity is there for budding coders to do something unique. For instance, if you write an IRC client for Linux, chances are it’ll get lost among the sea of similar apps on Freshmeat. If you write an IRC client for Syllable, though, it’ll receive far more attention — and could even become an official app…
Some major subsystems and components have yet to be implemented. For example, there’s no printer support or PPP functionality, so dialup modem users will have to go through another box via Ethernet. Features like these, and others, are on the cards for later releases, but in the meantime the Syllable team is focused on stabilising the foundations. As can be seen in the interview towards the end of this feature, significant additions are planned for 0.6.x and 0.7.x versions, so there’s a lot still up in the air.
And the verdict…
All things considered, Syllable isn’t currently suitable for newcomers to use day-in day-out, although it’s getting there; when the apps mature and become more robust and featureful, developers will find it a decent environment in which to work. It’s fast and pretty reliable, and the familiar CLI and toolchain are great to see. Most of all, there’s bags of promise in Syllable, with so much already done, and it’s clearly on the road to great things — so if you’re interested in OS development or writing software with a small and friendly community, give it a go.
What’s hot: Ultra-fast boot times; great general performance and low RAM requirements; clean and non-distracting GUI; easy configuration dialogs; friendly community.
What’s lacking: Some features and subsystems not yet coded; limited range of apps; occasional stability issues.
Bottom line: Astoundingly complete for a hobbyist OS at version 0.5, with a bright future ahead. Some more work on the apps and it’ll be very usable as a home desktop OS.
Mini interview: Syllable’s project lead
To gain more insight into Syllable’s development status and future plans, I asked project lead Kristian Van Der Vliet for his thoughts on various matters. Like the rest of the team, Vanders is confident about what can be achieved but he’s still realistic about the problems ahead — good to see at a time when hype and vapourware stalk the planet like colossal marketing stick-insects. My questions are in bold, with Vanders’ responses underneath.
What’s planned for the next release of Syllable?
Vanders: “The new desktop, Dock and Registrar will be the major features in the next release. Arno has already released several Alpha versions, and they’re very cool. The desktop is obviously one of the most important pieces of a desktop operating system, so it ties together a lot of the features we’ve been working on for quite some time.
There will also be the usual clutch of new drivers, including a 3dfx Voodoo driver, USB 2 driver and updates to the ATAPI (CD-ROM) driver. The next release will also be the first to support localisation, and Henrik [Isaksson] is busy updating and translating a lot of applications.”
In the longer-run, what are your goals for future releases (eg 0.6.x, 0.7.x) and what do you really want to see in 1.0?
Vanders: “Once 0.5 is completed we’ll have a stable codebase to start adding features to. Support for ACLs, PPP, libnet, printing support, multi-head displays, TV out, video capture, CD/DVD burning, better OpenGL support, more applications, utilities and games are all on the list for 0.6. I’m sure that at some point we’ll add proper support for AMD x86-64. We’ll also be spending a lot of time working on the look and feel of the GUI.
There’s too much that we intend to have completed for Syllable 1.0 to list here, but we have a complete list at http://wiki.isaksson.tk/cgi-bin/zwiki.pl?id=ToDo/0.5.0.”
Which aspects of Syllable do you feel are strongest at present, and which could do with more work?
Vanders: “Our kernel, GUI and hardware support are all excellent. The media framework is great and only continues to get better although we still need to add support for things like AC-3, multi-channel audio and DVD playback. The new desktop will begin to bring the sort of usability you would expect from a desktop system.
I think at this point in its life Syllable is beginning to become more useful as an every-day operating system, so we need applications. However, before we can really start to port and write large codebases we need better debugging tools. We need to work on stability.”
And lastly, can you guesstimate roughly when 1.0 will arrive? 🙂
Vanders: “If I could do that, I’d have won the lottery already! Sadly I can’t, not with any accuracy. We’re now into the second year of Syllable with 0.4 completed and we’re over half way through completing everything we have planned for 0.5, so I would expect us to be thinking about 0.6 at the beginning of next year. At worst, that is if the development team stays the same size, 1.0 will probably be 2 or 3 years away.”
So, there we have the low-down on what to expect over the next year or two. Here’s hoping Vanders will win the lottery, so that he (and the team) can devote more time to this up-and-coming OS. As it stands, though, Syllable is jam-packed with potential to become an ideal desktop system; it already has a smart design and featureset that just might propel it into the mainstream one day. Whether you’re an end-user, kernel hacker or app developer, it’s definitely worth checking out — and the team would love to hear your questions and suggestions in the comments section.
About the Author:
Michael Saunders is a freelance journalist living in the UK, and has worked for Linux Format, PC Plus and PC Format magazines (among others). Alongside his main Slackware 9.1 box he runs an Amiga, Acorn 5000 and Atari ST, and passes the hours installing esoteric OSes and playing Animal Crossing.
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