I have always been a fan of fringe operating systems.
Between 1989 and 1992, I learned and used VMS, OS/2 2.0, NeXTStep on those beautiful cubes, GeoWorks, AmigaOS, and probably half-a-dozen others that I don't recall at the moment. I loved the diversity, the differences, the similarities. Booting an unfamiliar operating system for the first time always gave me a rush of geeky machismo, usually accompanied by the irresistible urge to grow a thick mustache and learn to fence with a saber.
Perhaps it's a sickness peculiar to geeks. Or maybe it's just me.
My favorite of the lot was NeXTStep. I couldn't install it at home, though, so my second favorite was OS/2, with the simple and powerful workplace shell, and DOS-like shell.
I knew a little bit about Unix through the NeXT. My curiosity was sharp in those days, insatiable. I fired up WAIS and Gopher and Veronica, and looked around, trying to discover what I could about Unix.
This was September, 1993. My timing couldn't've been better. I found a reference to Linux, a freely-available Unix-like operating system. Archie did the rest.
I spent about two days downloading the twenty or thirty floppy images of the SLS distribution. I used the "rawrite" utility to dump the images to floppy. After just a couple of days, and copious perusal of the comp.os.linux usenet newsgroup, I had X11 running on my 386 with 4M RAM, and 40M hard drive. My favorite thing for the next two days was to watch multiple copies of xgas running simultaneously. It beat working, anyway.
That was my beginning with GNU/Linux, and for the last 13 years, I have used GNU/Linux almost exclusively. I am amused at people who ask, "Is Linux ready for the desktop?" Um, yeah. Only for the last decade.
But now I think it is time to dump GNU/Linux.
Don't get me wrong: I still love GNU/Linux. It's just gotten. . . boring. It's no longer the undiscovered country, the wild west, the final frontier. Forgive my metaphor mix-o-rama. I just want to say, Linux is so ready for the desktop, it's boring. There's really not much left for me to explore. The only reason GNU/Linux has managed to keep my attention this long is that it was born about the same time as the web, and the two have matured together. (A coincidence? Oh, I don't think so.)
There is now only one question. Where do I go from here?
What did Ken Thompson do after he was finished with Unix? He took everything he learned, and he designed a new operating system, Plan 9. Plan 9 is everything Unix wanted to be when it grew up. Plan 9 is also free software, released under the Lucent Public License, which is like the IBM Public License, only with the source-code redistribution requirements stripped off.
Inferno is based on Plan 9. Designed as a high-performance operating system for small computers, Inferno has recently been released under a melange of free software licenses (MIT, GPL, LGPL, and Lucent Public Licence).
Menuet is an operating system written entirely in assembly language. There are two versions, a 32-bit version and a 64-bit version. The 32-bit version is released under the GPL. The 64-bit version is not. Although it's not under active development, it is truly a wonderful little operating system.
And finally, for those too timid to explore the truly unmapped vistas of the software universe, there is ReactOS, a freely-available operating system designed to be binary-compatible with MS-Windows XP. The ReactOS homepage claims it is only alpha-level software, and not recommended for real use. Right.
This isn't a complete list of the Operating Systems for the Adventurous. There's the GNU Hurd, which boldly goes where no mutually-recursive acronym has gone before. There's Syllable, derived from the illustrious AtheOS. For the fans of BeOS, there's Haiku. And though even this list is incomplete, I will add one more: Minix3.
None of these systems are recommended for daily use, at least for little sissy-boys. But, for those of you adventurous enough, brave enough, crazy enough, any one of these operating systems should be able to bring a little something new to your life.
You too can re-live the early days before GNU/Linux became mainstream. Or, you can experience it all for the first time.
Join me. Dump GNU/Linux. Live on the edge once more.