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Say helloSystem: Mac-like FreeBSD project emits 0.5 release

Why? Because the Mac has lost its way and modern OSes are too controlled and too complex, creator argues

helloSystem, a project that gives FreeBSD a user interface reminiscent of macOS, hit the 0.5 landmark with a new build last week.

The 0.5 release is based on FreeBSD 12.2 and is progressing nicely. The release notes show a number of important fixes like “sudo su works now”, “fix wrong font sizes” and “fix menu and desktop on multi-monitor setups”.

There is also a note that “all helloDesktop core components build on Linux now,” raising the possibility of a Linux version in future, and that helloDesktop can be used with an alternative window manager, KWin, instead of OpenBox.

Changes in the core utilities include “spatial mode” in Filer, which means that folders open in a new window. This is on by default but can be configured in Preferences. Filer also has a new Go To menu, a context menu for opening files as root, new keyboard shortcuts, and shows file volumes on the desktop. Windowshading has been introduced, which collapses a window to just its title bar when the title bar is double-clicked.

Perhaps more important is that the system works more smoothly than before — in our setup in a Hyper-V virtual machine — and is already among the most usable desktops in the free software world, despite limited features.

Familiarity with the Mac user interface helps, since it uses the same principle that application menus appear in the top system menu bar, not on the application window.

Applications on the menu install on demand, so, for example, if you select Blender for the first time, a dialog reads “Blender needs to be downloaded before it can be used. Do you want to download it now?” Click Yes and it installs ready for use.

Selecting an application not yet installed shows a download prompt

Selecting an application not yet installed shows a download prompt

The repository for helloSystem is on GitHub where it is split into 16 projects, including the key utilities like Menu (the global menu bar), Filer, and Dock. There is also a “hello” repository dedicated to discussion of the overall system, and it is here that users can find the rationale for the operating system.

The implementation is inspired by macOS but also based on Bruce Tognazzini’s First Principles of Interaction Design. The rationale is that commercial operating systems (including the current macOS) are too locked-down and controlled by their vendors; helloSystem creator Simon Peter said that “we want to run apps from ‘unidentified developers’ that need no blessing by the operating system vendor.”

He also referenced (with approval) articles by writer Riccardo Mori which argued that today’s macOS is “the least Mac-like in the history of the Mac”.

Mori went on to opine: “Going through Big Sur’s user interface with a fine-toothed comb reveals arbitrary design decisions that prioritise looks over function, and therefore reflect an un-learning of tried-and-true user interface and usability mechanics that used to make for a seamless, thoughtful, enjoyable Mac experience.”

He also said the influence of iOS has been damaging to macOS.

In other words, helloSystem is both an effort to promote free software and also a move back towards the things that (in Peter’s opinion) made the early Mac “insanely great”. Minimalism is a feature.

We are building the opposite of a ‘Linux distribution’

In another piece, written before the adoption of FreeBSD, Peter explained that “we are not building a ‘Linux distribution’. In fact, we are building the opposite of a ‘Linux distribution’. We are building minimalistic end-user appliances (embedded systems for the desktop, possibly for media consumption devices and other form factors) that happen to use a Linux kernel as its hardware abstraction layer.”

His list of technologies “not wanted in this project” includes: touch interfaces; the btrfs file system; Gnome and KDE (considered too complex); Wayland, which “makes things more complicated”; Pipewire audio; and package managers for end-user applications.

“Everything that is to be managed on our system can be managed in the file manager and/or other GUI elements,” he wrote.

He also argued that building in security “makes the system more complex, cumbersome, and less fun to use, while the benefit is questionable in many cases.”

Peter will find himself isolated in some of these opinions — particularly with respect to security. That said, the instant usability of helloSystem shows that this is a project worth watching. ®

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