It was the summer of 2001, and computer programmer Michael Phipps had a problem: His favorite operating system, BeOS, was about to go extinct. Having an emotional attachment to a piece of software may strike you as odd, but to Phipps and many others (including me), BeOS deserved it. It ran amazingly fast on the hardware of its day; it had a clean, intuitive user interface; and it offered a rich, fun, and modern programming environment. In short, we found it vastly superior to every other computer operating system available. But the company that had created BeOS couldn’t cut it in the marketplace, and its assets, including BeOS, were being sold to a competitor.
Worried that under a new owner BeOS would die a slow, unsupported death, Phipps did the only logical thing he could think of: He decided to re-create BeOS completely from scratch, but as open-source code. An open-source system, he reasoned, isn’t owned by any one company or person, and so it can’t disappear just because a business goes belly-up or key developers leave.
Now if you’ve ever done any programming, you’ll know that creating an operating system is a huge job. And expecting people to do that without paying them is a little nuts. But for the dozens of volunteer developers who have worked on Haiku, it has been a labor of love. In the 11 years since the project began, we’ve released three alpha versions of the software, and this month we expect to release the fourth and final alpha. After that we’ll move to the beta stage, which we hope to get out by the end of the year, followed by the first official release, known as R1, in early 2013.
Even now, anybody can install and run the operating system on an Intel x86-based computer. Many of those who have done so comment that even the alpha releases of Haiku feel as stable as the final release of some other software. Indeed, of all the many alternative operating systems now in the works, Haiku is probably the best positioned to challenge the mainstream operating systems like Microsoft Windows and Mac OS. For both users and developers, the experience of running Haiku is incredibly consistent, and like BeOS, it is fast, responsive, and efficient. What’s more, Haiku, unlike its more established competitors, is exceedingly good at tackling one of the toughest challenges of modern computing: multicore microprocessors. Let’s take a look at why that is, how Haiku came to be, and whether the operating system running on your computer really performs as well as it should.
First, a little history. In 1991, a Frenchman named Jean-Louis Gassée and several other former Apple employees founded Be Inc. because they wanted to create a new kind of computer. In particular, they sought to escape the backward-compatibility trap they’d witnessed at Apple, where every new version of hardware and software had to take into account years of legacy systems, warts and all. The company’s first product was a desktop computer called the BeBox. Finding no other operating system that met their needs, the Be engineers wrote their own.
Released in October 1995, the BeBox didn’t last long. BeOS, on the other hand, quickly found a small yet loyal following, and it was soon running on Intel x86-based PCs and Macintosh PowerPC clones. At one point Apple even considered BeOS as a replacement for its own operating system. The company eventually released a stripped-down version of BeOS for Internet appliances, but it wasn’t enough. In 2001, Palm acquired Be for a reported US $11 million.