Haiku is obviously not a Linux distribution, but it is an open source operating system and does have a very interesting history. I have been following it loosely for many years now, hoping it would reach the point of being ready for everyday desktop use. Last week the developers released R1/Beta 2 so a good reason to give Haiku another close look.
Before we start, let’s get an idea where Haiku comes from. Back in the 90s a former Apple executive launched BeOS, a multimedia focused general desktop operating system. It was developed for the PowerPC architecture and meant to appeal to the professional Apple user. The system was very modern and sleek for it’s time and at one point pushed to become Apple’s next operating system. Apple, however, decided to buy into Steven Job’s NeXtStep and as a result BeOS became very isolated. As a way out, BeOS was ported to the x86 architecture in the hope for more mainstream adoption. Sadly, it never managed to be more than a niche product and in the end was sold to Palm Inc. where it didn’t get developed any further as a desktop system.
The demise of BeOS encouraged the development of several independent projects aiming at keeping the OS alive. The one to have persevered to this day is Haiku. The developers used some of the code that was open source at the time and rebuilt all the other bits and pieces to get a fully BeOS compatible system – no trivial feat!
On Haiku’s website I downloaded the 64 bit version, a zipped 950 MB download that unpacks into a 1.2 GB ISO. You can use your usual tool to create a bootable USB drive and boot into a live session as you would with a Linux distribution. The boot process is quite fast and accompanied by a good looking splash screen. Once fully loaded, the system uses around 350 MB of Ram in idle.
If you have played around with NeXtStep back in the day or the Window Maker desktop environment on Linux, you’ll see many similarities. By default, you have a dock on the top right with an application launcher and a system tray of sorts. Whenever you open an app, it adds itself to the dock. On the top left desktop, you have some icons like your disks and home folder. You can click through your file system as you would with OpenBox which is quite easy and intuitive.
I had a hard time testing the system properly as there is no way to control screen brightness and the full brightness was really hurting my eyes (laptop users: have your sunglasses ready!). I also couldn’t change the screen resolution, so on top of the glare, the interface was too small for my eyes (HiDPI wasn’t a thing back then).
EDIT: You can scale up the desktop experience by increasing the system font size and rebooting. Works really well!
The OS comes bundled with many apps and more can be installed through HaikuDepot. The developers have been busy repackaging some popular Linux applications for Haiku including the whole LibreOffice suite and Calligra. Sadly, the main piece of software anyone would need on a day to day basis: A fully functioning web browser, was severely lacking. The default browser is called Netpositive. It ran quite buggy during my testing. It was slow to load many sites. Fonts didn’t display as they should. Sometimes the back button wouldn’t work. Spotify didn’t load at all. YouTube barely worked with videos stuck at 360p and no full screen option (It didn’t let me access YouTube controls). Haiku still lacks hardware acceleration. I also encountered a random glitch that would cause a smear effect of an active window all over the desktop when it got dragged around. Bugs aside, the system is very snappy overall and quite pretty to look at as well.
Haiku also has comes with special applets for enhancing the user experience: The Launch Box gives you quick access to: Email, notes, calculator, media player, image viewer and the terminal. Workspaces gives you 4 fully customizable work spaces to switch in between. These can be set-up independently with different resolutions and backgrounds if needed. These applets (Replicants, as they call them) can be pinned anywhere on the desktop for quick access – very nice!
I wanted to try some applications from HaikuDepot, the software center but there wasn’t enough space left on the live USB drive. A pity because Haiku did not behave like a live system and was actually persistent (i.e. behaved like a fully installed system that retained data after shut down). There was still over 6GB of empty space on my 8GB USB drive. Had the screen glare not been that frustrating, I would have expanded the disk space and gone into more software testing. Also of note: Haiku is a single user system. I could not find any user specific preferences or log-in details to secure the system.
Despite all of the issues I encountered, I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Haiku. It does remind me of the time in the early 90s when I was desperately hoping for something to replace my Amiga 500. This would have been perfect. Looking ahead, we have to keep in mind that the small team of dedicated folks behind Haiku can only accomplish so much. They have come a long way and I am looking forward to the day I can use Haiku as a secondary OS running from a thumb drive. Fingers crossed they will soon be able to sink more time into the browser and give us screen brightness control.
I’d love to hear from others who experienced Haiku, so if you have some feedback, please let us know in the comments below.