Haiku: BeOS for the 21st Century

Welcome back to 1995! Not. Although the open-source Haiku operating system is based on the older BeOS, a long-defunct operating system, the Haiku developers are keeping their project up with the times. Today I’m going to give you a screenshot tour of this unique OS.

Let’s Start with Some History

Be Inc. started developing BeOS in 1991 and unleashed the first release in 1995. BeOS was intended to compete with early versions of Microsoft Windows and Mac OS as a multimedia-oriented desktop operating system.

Apple came close to buying BeOS in 1996, but Be Inc. wanted $200 million for it – more than Apple was willing to pay. Apple instead purchased NeXTSTEP, from which OS X eventually descended. BeOS failed in the commercial market.

The last official release of BeOS, BeOS R5, came out in 2001. Palm, Inc. subsequently bought all of Be Inc.’s rights and assets, and the company entered dissolution.


Despite BeOS’ market failure, the operating system held a niche appeal with a small but significant user base. Haiku development began in 2001 as a way to keep BeOS alive. The project aimed to provide a free and fully backwards-compatible BeOS replacement. Eight years passed before the first alpha release of Haiku entered the world in 2009.

Haiku is now at R1 Alpha 4.1 (November, 2012). Although the retro-looking user interface betrays its ancient origins, developers have made Haiku compatible with modern technologies such as WebKit (a browser rendering engine), OpenGL, wireless networking protocols, and the latest CPU architectures.

Haiku is designed to be modular, which means that individual components of the system can be developed independently from one another; this design makes it easier to support technological advancements as they come.

Getting Haiku

You can download Haiku from the official download page in three formats:

  • ISO
  • Virtual machine
  • Anyboot (for writing directly to a USB stick or CD)

All of the available formats can be installed or run in live mode. For this walk-through, I’ve used the ISO in live mood inside VirtualBox.

The Haiku Environment

When you boot your live medium, you’ll see this menu:


I selected the live CD option so that I could use the system right away.

Once the desktop loads, you’ll see some icons on the top:


When I saw this, I immediately clicked the “Welcome” icon (which links to an HTML file), only to discover that Haiku didn’t know which application to open it with. I thought, “Hm. Alpha quality, much?”

A few seconds later, Haiku began updating its Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension (MIME) types; essentially, it was gathering data about which programs to use to open which file extensions.


Once it was done, clicking on the “Welcome” icon opened up the WebPositive browser.


Right-clicking on the desktop displays a menu that includes applications, settings, and documentation, among some other things:


I scoped out the “Demos” category and found a mandelbrot fractal explorer, a 3D starfield generator, and a primitive vector drawing application.


I found several interesting things in the “Apps” section, including an IRC client called Vision, which automatically signs you into the Haiku IRC channel.


I also found a reasonably advanced image editor, WonderBrush. It’s no GIMP, but it definitely surpasses early MS Paint releases.


Although Haiku has a lot of general purpose (and some random) software already installed, you might want to look for more applications. The Welcome file suggests four online repositories to go to for Haiku software:

Note that old BeOS software is also compatible with Haiku, so if you were a BeOS user in the nineties and miss your old programs, you’re in luck.

Overall, I was pleased with the software selection these sites offered. Here’s a sample page from Haikuware:


The documentation says that installing a Haiku app is as simple as unzipping it into the directory /boot/apps. I decided to test that out with an animation and video editing application called eXposer, which I downloaded from Haikuware. The icon for the downloaded archive was on my desktop, so I double-clicked it. A splash screen came up:


And a moment or two later, an automated installer appeared:


The installation took ten to fifteen minutes. There were a few points at which the installer didn’t seem to be doing anything at all, so I assumed it was frozen, but then the progress bar would start moving again.

When eXposer was finally installed, I found it in the Apps folder. Opening it up, I saw what looked like a decent animation editor. I didn’t play around with it too much because I didn’t have anything to animate on the live system, but it was nice to see that it had an intuitive interface with tooltips and an HTML help document.


But then – wouldn’t you know it? – I got this:


All good things must come to an end, right?


Haiku doesn’t seem quite stable enough for everyday use, especially for a production environment, but I still recommend trying it from a live medium. If anything, it presents an interesting type of anachronism to ponder. If you’re into retro computing but want things like modern websites to render properly, definitely give Haiku a shot.

What do you think of Haiku? Have you tried any other unusual or lesser-known operating systems? Let us know in the comments!

Image credit for BeOS screenshot: Nathan Lineback

Rebecca "Ruji" Chapnik

Ruji Chapnik is a freelance creator of miscellanea, including but not limited to text and images. She studied art at the University of California, Santa Cruz and writing at Portland State University. She went on to study Linux in her bedroom and also in various other people's bedrooms, crouched anti-ergonomically before abandoned Windows computers. Ruji currently lives in Portland, Oregon. You can find her experiments at rujic.net and her comics at dondepresso.rujic.net.

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