Friday, March 6, 2009

Really Want "OS X" on Linux? Help Out Etoile

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBase
There are approximately eight hundred articles on the intarwebs detailing how to make your freshly installed Linux distribution look approximately like (or exactly like) Mac OS X. There are even entire distributions devoted to the look: gOS is one and Dream Linux is another. When you're finished, though, you're still left with a knock-off -- a desktop that looks like OS X but behaves like GNOME or KDE or XFCE. Instead of some eye candy, wouldn't you rather have the thing that makes OS X stand out, the funtionality? Meet (I'm missing some diacritical marks on the name ... sorry)

First, some history. This is off the top of my head since I'm not a Mac historian. Jobs finished work on the original Mac and it was launched in 1984 (I was at the unveiling at my state's big computer convention, by the way). Shortly after that, he left Apple and began work on NeXTSTEP, releasing it in 1988 or so. The operating system was very Apple-ish: it was a hardware/software bundle. It did really cool things for the time and most of the major features are now features of OS X:
  • It introduced (and patented) the dock.
  • It used display Postscript (OS X now uses Postscript).
  • It had Drag-n-Drop for elements between applications.
  • There was CD sound.
  • Search used text of documents.
  • Full-color graphics were oriented toward artists and other creative types.
  • WYSIWYG existed for just about everything.
  • It had OLE.
While this list doesn't sound too innovative now, but it still sound pretty current, even though the technology is twenty years old. Check out this NeXT demo by Steve Jobs. (Note Jobs' digs at Mac -- slowing us down -- and especially DOS -- wonderful interace /sarcasm.)

Unfortunately, NeXTSTEP was prohibitively expensive and a little bit before its time, but it had a well-documented API (most systems of the time did) and was based on BSD Unix. It never wuite took off, and Apple (in its death throes) decided to purchase NeXT, bringing Jobs oveer to Apple and replacing OS9 with NeXT. This is sometimes jokingly referred to as NeXT's purchase of Apple using negative cash. Apple used NeXTSTEP to build OS X.

While Apple was building OS X, GNUStep was building a system which was API-compatible with NeXTSTEP. It's been mostly completed for a decade, has a few interesting applications, but has been crippled by
  1. Not having an associated and integrated window manager. Most GNUStep users used Window Maker or Afterstep. While both looked like NeXTSTEP, they didn't have the lower-level stuff.
  2. GNUStep was butt ugly.
GNUStep was what I wanted to run in 1999, but there just wasn't enough of a system there. I've gone back to it several times since then, but never last more than a day on it because of limited functionality and eye strain. It's a big disappointment for a lot of people and an also-ran these days.

Some people with some programming skills finally decided to do something about the situation: David Chisnall and Quentin Mathé.
Etoile uses Objective C and Smalltalk for programming, but there's a proposal to have an ECMAScript-like scripting language for desktop use. IT's nowhere near finished, but it compiles and works in a fashion. If you really want an OS X-like system on Linux, and you have programming skills, then get over there and help them out.

An ancient exists, if you're interested. The current code only appears in SVN for now, though Debian and Ubuntu offer some of Etoile in the source package and,, and packages.


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