Syllable Desktop 0.6.5 on Asus Eee PC
Power Manga on Syllable Desktop - video
Syllable is a volunteer project that is developing a family of easy to use computer operating systems. An operating system is the basic software that makes a computer do things. Every computer, and basically every electronic device that is a computer nowadays, needs one. The application programs that you use to get things done need an operating system, so they don't each have to reinvent the wheel.
Beyond knowing that your computer needs an operating system, like you need air to breathe, why should you care? We think that ideally, you shouldn't. Computers are now part of modern day life. You use them for all sorts of things you want to do. Application programs provide the functionality you need. Operating systems should provide the services that applications need to make the machine do their thing, but should otherwise get out of the way as much as possible. Many computer devices have almost become invisible, in your microwave and coffee machine for example, and so should operating systems.
And here lies the rub. Coffee machines and other special-purpose devices usually succeed in doing what you want, but many people can't escape the feeling that their personal computers are often working against them. Yet they are based on the same technology as the little computers that are helpful all during the day. Personal computers are far more powerful machines, so they should also be far more helpful, shouldn't they? Well, sometimes they are, but often they are not.
Trying to Learn from History
The problem is that computer technology is very recent, and we are still in the gold rush period. When individuals started buying computers, companies pried the machines from the hands of scientists, and everyone tried to become as big as possible, as fast as possible. When the Internet became popular, they knew they had struck gold, and the miners' train has been unstoppable ever since. Maybe common computer owners are the Indians who got run over. The fact is that computers have never really been designed for common people. First they were made for scientists by scientists, and then they were made by companies to make money. Don't take our word for it, just count the number of advertisements that are on your computer, the computer that you own, that make your computer try to make you buy more stuff from companies. This is just one example of many in the way that personal computers work nowadays. They are too complicated, because scientists originally made them for themselves, and they get in your face because big companies slapped their own agendas on top of them. These are not machines that get out of your way and helpfully do what you want, like a microwave.
So how to fix this situation? It is very difficult, for a significant part because most people don't know what they are missing. Computer scientists will tell you that the machines are fine, because they like them to be complex. Companies will tell you that the machines are fine, because they like to control them even though you own them. Yet, some people remember a few machines from decades ago that were different. They got run over in the gold rush, but they proved that it is possible to build much more helpful machines. And if it was possible then, it is certainly possible now, because the hardware that computers are built from has become much more powerful. It's the software that is often not working in the interest of the owner. In the Syllable project, we are using this power to help the owner instead of the scientists and the big companies.
How do we do that? It takes many ingredients. The most important ones are that we remember the old machines and that we are an independent volunteer project. We know what we want to create, but in a modern way. We need some work from the computer scientists, and it happens that many of them are making their software available on the Internet these days as free and open source software. But we can pick and choose from that, so we can put our foot down when they are making things too complicated. We need a bit of money to run the project, but it's nothing compared to what companies must spend and earn back to develop software. Most of all, we need like-minded people, the people we are doing it for. We need common people who are open enough to try something different while we are still developing Syllable, and we need software developers who understand what we are doing to help us finish it.
A Tale of Two Operating Systems
So what exactly is Syllable and what can it do for you? We are producing two operating systems: Syllable Desktop and Syllable Server. They are meant for different roles, but they share the goals of being as easy to use as possible while still being very powerful. Syllable Desktop is meant to run on personal computers. It is fully graphical, so it is easy to operate for people who don't care about diving into technical details. At the same time, it also offers a traditional command prompt environment that is well-known to technical-minded people as an extra, so nobody loses out. Syllable Server is meant to run on server computers - the ones that quietly do their work in backrooms and that you can connect to over the network with your personal computer. Thus, Syllable Server and Syllable Desktop are made to work together. You can happily use them on their own and with many different systems, but used together they will provide extra advantages. For example, if you want to set up a network of machines, it is easier if both desktop and server computers are alike, at least in their software. There will be less you will need to learn and remember to accomplish your tasks.
An important thing to know about Syllable is that Syllable Server is based on the well-known Linux kernel, but Syllable Desktop is not. Thus, Syllable Server is a Linux distribution, but Syllable Desktop is not. We started Syllable Desktop in 2002 and based it on the AtheOS operating system. Its author ceased its development around that time, so we effectively took it over. In 2007, we created Syllable Server with the same tools that we developed for Syllable Desktop, but basing it on Linux. The Linux kernel is not a complete operating system, but only the core for one, so we molded it into a complete system by adapting the parts that we already had. This way, we have made the two systems quite similar. When you can work with one, you can work with the other. However, Syllable Server does not have a full graphical environment yet. We are putting the one from Syllable Desktop on it, so it will become a very easy to use server system, but until we are done, Syllable Server can only be operated from a text mode command prompt. After that, the choice between the two environments will be up to the user. Unlike Syllable Desktop, it will always be possible to run Syllable Server without the graphical environment where and when this is more suitable.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
What Syllable can do for you really depends on what you want from it. Even though Syllable tries hard to be easy, it is not a microwave (although it has been known to warm people up and even make them glow ;-). It is a general-purpose system, so it can be used for many things. We think everyone can benefit from gaining the full power of their computers, but different people have different needs.
If you are a regular computer owner with a number of things you want from your computer but not much time to coerce your machine into doing them, then Syllable is for you - just not yet. Syllable is still under development. The base system is relatively mature. We think you will like it very much for its simplicity, consistency and speed, but most of the applications you need to do your things are still missing. We need more people to help us create application programs. In the meantime, we think it would be a good thing to check in on Syllable's development once in a while, and to compare it to your current system to see if it is really as adequate as you thought it was.
If you are somewhat of a hobbyist, Syllable may be very interesting to you. Even though it doesn't have many applications yet, a full collection of the most basic applications is included with the system. Syllable Desktop is easy to try out and quite usable if you are willing to adapt a bit to it. For example, it's quite suitable for browsing the web and some light emailing. Not all common computer hardware is supported yet, but if your audio hardware is supported, you can listen to music and play videos. What's more, you can do this on older computers that are unusable with current mainstream operating systems. One of the ways that we put the power of the machines into the hands of their owners is that Syllable's hardware requirements are very low. You can make a five years old machine into one that behaves like a brand new one. You may even be able to make a ten years old computer do useful things again. The Syllable community on the Internet is friendly and we always try to help out with any problems you may encounter.
If you are a technology enthusiast, we think you will be amazed by Syllable's speed and handling. Aren't you tired of buying a new machine every year, putting the newest software on it, and having the combination be as sluggish as the old one was? Syllable can make your computer really fast. One of the ways we do that is that, unlike other systems, Syllable makes full use of the latest multi-core processors. If you like trying out different systems, you can run Syllable in a virtual machine. It will be slower, of course, but since it is so fast on real hardware and compact, it will still be usable in a virtual machine. Or maybe you have one of these neat new small ultra-mobile laptops? They are great because they are full PCs, but mainstream desktop operating systems don't run very well on them, if at all. Syllable is an excellent match for these new machines.
If you are a software developer, Syllable offers an environment to you that is both very clean and familiar. Syllable is mostly built on standard technology. It uses the GCC compiler and many other tools from the GNU project. The low-level system is highly POSIX compatible. If you are a Linux developer, working with it is much the same. The high-level system was inspired by the elegant design of BeOS. If you write graphical programs, there is only one toolkit to target, unlike on other systems. Syllable's design is very integrated, even though it is still highly modular. When Syllable Server gets the Syllable graphical environment, programs will be source compatible between Desktop and Server. Development on Syllable is self-hosting. Syllable does offer cross-platform technology, though. The SDL subsystem is integrated into Syllable, so it can run many cross-platform programs. We maintain binary compatibility across Syllable versions, so you are not forced to rebuild and rerelease your software. If you are a systems developer, you probably like to hear that this extends to the Syllable Desktop kernel as well: it is highly modular and drivers have stable ABIs. As a developer you are very welcome in the Syllable community. We need people to help us out with writing and porting applications and further developing the operating system. If you are interested in this sort of thing, there is a great range of opportunities for you.
If you are a systems administrator, Syllable Server may be very interesting to you. It is already a stable operating system, because it is based on the mature Linux kernel. If you are a Linux admin, your familiar environment will be there, but without the bloat of many other systems. Syllable was not made easier just by putting a graphical shell over it to hide the cruft, but by really simplifying the underlying system. It does not take any power away from you, but gives you more because it is easier to understand. Syllable leaves you the choice to configure a system the way you want to, but does not force you to make all these decisions before you can get the system running. If you are a Windows admin who is interested in learning Linux, Syllable Server is one of the easiest systems to gain real knowledge on. Syllable Server is particularly suited to implement virtual machines, because it is so small and adaptable; both for running Server as virtual machines and for running virtual machines on Server.
If you are a business person, we think Syllable will become important to you in the future. When, depends on your business. It will take several more years to make Syllable Desktop production ready, but Syllable Server is very close to that phase. If you have a purpose for server or embedded systems and are forward-thinking, you may be able to use Syllable to your advantage soon. Both Syllable Server and Syllable Desktop have extraordinarily low resource requirements, so they save costs, and can sometimes be deployed in places where other systems cannot. They are also easy to use, maintain and develop for, saving labour costs. If your use of IT is not a core part of your business, we advise you to wait until Syllable is more mature. In the meantime, Syllable is a good measure to evaluate other systems by, to see what is possible.
You can help in the development of Syllable. We are always interested in hearing from developers, testers, graphical artists, documentation authors, people who can spread the word... anyone! No matter your skill set, if you are a constructive person you can contribute to Syllable. We are a small organisation with a strong vision. We don't like bureaucracy very much, so there are few hoops to jump through to join the project, and we expect you not to create hoops for us. All you need to do is try Syllable, subscribe to the forum, and start! You don't need to be a computer science student, but if you are, Syllable is a good study object. It's a modern operating system that is very suitable for doing research assignments and helping us at the same time. We can publish your work and integrate it into the system to kickstart your career.
Syllable is still being developed, but it is already relatively stable and mature, including the following features: