BeOS reborn: 30 days with Haiku

Haiku is a free operating system and an alternative to Linux. It celebrated its seventh birthday on 18 August, and it's still being actively developed. Haiku is nowhere near being considered a finished product, but it's now stable enough for everyday use. Most importantly, it's very interesting. The design of Haiku closely mimics that of BeOS – but Linux Format magazine's Graham Morrison has never used BeOS. He doesn't know if it has a web browser, a file manager or even a command line. He has no idea how packages are installed, or even if they can be. This is his story...

I remember being quite excited about BeOS ten years ago, but before I'd had a chance to check it out, the company and the operating system had become defunct. Fortunately, BeOS made quite an impression on those who did get to try it, and as with the venerable Commodore Amiga, there have been numerous attempts to resuscitate the old operating system. And that's where Haiku and open source steps in.

Released under the MIT licence, Haiku is a worthy successor to BeOS. Not only is it compatible with the binaries created for the last release, it also offers significant improvements over its predecessor.

I have to admit I don't intend to use Haiku exclusively. I wouldn't be able to do my job if I did. Instead, I'm going to run Haiku as a virtual machine on my Linux desktop, and I'll use it for everything else that I can. Hopefully.

First impressions

On the first boot of Haiku, things look scarily like 1992. There's lots of primary colours, with a dash of yellow that borders an active window and a garish blue background and feather logo. I'm used to the BeOS theme from KDE, but that doesn't really help me feel at home here. It brings back distant memories of tuning fonts and installing application icons, and downloading 100KB overnight through the ancient JANET network. Fortunately, networking has come a long way and the desktop look is easy to change.

My first usability alteration is to modify the mouse control. It's too fast and accelerated while running inside the virtual machine. The mouse preferences panel was easy to find, tucked away with a strange 'feather' dock in the top right corner of the screen, but finding the mouse sweet spot wasn't as straightforward.

I kept making small adjustments, and moving between the desktop and the mouse preferences menu resulted in my first crash. While I could still move the mouse pointer, the desktop was refusing to respond. A serious crash in the first five minutes reminds me of the days of KDE 4.0. But unlike KDE, a reboot of Haiku takes a matter of seconds.

With perfunctory usability modifications out of the way, it's time to browse the web. This leads me back to the blue feather in the top-right of the desktop, the only possible entry point I can see for any kind of menu system. Sure enough, a single click reveals an Xfce-like cluster of menus, one of which is labelled 'Applications'. This would hide the web browser – if one were installed. Instead, it lists a dozen or so technical demos, none of which add any functionality to the desktop.

Desperate, I open a command line terminal and type 'links' followed by 'lynx', but there's no glimmer of recognition from the Bash prompt. I'm stuck, and the only solution I can think of is to switch back to the Linux desktop and use a browser I know works. Which is exactly what I do next.

Doc deprived

I first try the Haiku online documentation, but the freefall state of development that Haiku is in means there's no documentation for prospective users, only documentation to help developers. I'm left resorting to Google, and search for 'haiku getting started browser'. This works, as the first hit is a link to Haiku's community forum and a new user asking exactly the same question.