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Editor's Note: Linux Should Copy Amiga

Nov 21, 2008, 23:03 (87 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Mark Shuttleworth made headlines not too long ago when he called for the Linux desktop to surpass Mac OS X in both beauty and functionality. While a lot of folks thought that was breathtaking and audacious, I think he's aiming too low. I think Linux should aspire to equal or better the AmigaOS.

I'm not much of an Apple fan-- I don't care for the Apple desktop, even though my first ever computer was a Macintosh LC II, and I've had several Macs since then. To me it feels itchy and galling, like a scritchy wool shirt on a warm day. But that's a question of preference, and for all I know Mr. Shuttleworth is on the right track. But I think there is a better model to aspire to, and that is the AmigaOS.

What On Earth Is An Amiga?

AmigaOS was far ahead of its time. Born around 1985, it evolved into a genuine 32-bit multi-threaded, multi-tasking, multi-media operating system. I got to play with an Amiga PC with back around 1998 or so, and it was an amazing experience. It made Windows 95 and the Mac look like obese, inflexible, unstable toys. Wikipedia quotes John Dvorak as saying
"The AmigaOS remains one of the great operating systems of the past 20 years, incorporating a small kernel and tremendous multitasking capabilities the likes of which have only recently been developed in OS/2 and Windows NT. The biggest difference is that the AmigaOS could operate fully and multitask in as little as 250 K of address space. Even today, the OS is only about 1MB in size."
AmigaOS is proprietary and closed-source, lost funding in the 2001 tech crash, and almost kicked the bucket. (Yet another lesson in the benefits of an libre/open source development model.) But it did not die entirely and it is still actively developed, though it's currently bogged down in a lawsuit over who really owns it. So obviously, there are some features of it that we would be advised to not emulate.

Amiga - the little computer that could is an excellent summary of the features that keep love for AmigaOS alive. In summary: the human user is #1. Not the developers, not the code, not talented but impractical designers and gobs of special effects-- the user. What a concept-- a computer designed to make life for the user as efficient and pleasant as possible. The main feature that wins my heart is user input is always given the highest priority. You are not kept waiting while some slacker background process ambles its way to completion-- when you, the human, the one supposedly in charge, clicks the mouse or presses a key, Amiga instantly obeys. Ever since I started using PCs the number one item on my wishlist is "Obey me first!" A wish that is still unfulfilled. When some horribly-scripted Web page eats up my CPU cycles and brings everything to a screeching halt, when I fat-finger and accidentally run the wrong commands, I want an instant "go away now" key. Why should I wait? Amiga doesn't make you wait.

There has been a lot of work on the Linux kernel that addresses this issue, and Ubuntu (for one) supposedly tunes its desktop kernel to be more user-responsive. If it is it's a subtle difference.

Some other genuinely user-friendly features are a sensible, truly intuitive GUI; fast on and instant off; easily customizable in all kinds of ways; intelligent localisation; ordered window stacking (I guarantee the first time you try this you'll fall in love); and an overall responsiveness and peppiness that will spoil you for any other operating system. And as much as we like to boast of Linux's friendliness to older, weaker hardware, AmigaOS is definitely the efficiency winner. Though this efficiency comes at a significant cost-- Amiga, like the Mac OS, derives much of its efficiency from being closely tied to the hardware.

As I read "Amiga - the little computer that could" I kept thinking how much more it sounded like a good inspiration for Linux than Apple. Most of the concepts are similar: power under the hood in easy reach, a shiny polished easily-customizable exterior, and an overall goal of putting the user in ultimate control. Put Amiga's friendliness on top of Linux's raw power, flexibility, and openness-- now that would be a world-beater.

References

ars Technica has an excellent, detailed review of AmigaOS 4.1, and where to get it:
It's alive!: Ars reviews AmigaOS 4.1