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
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.
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
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.
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