Sun Launches OpenSolaris on a Post-OS World

Because you were probably just thinking that your choices on operating systems were feeling a little limited.

It’s an odd time to be releasing a new operating system. Desktop operating systems have had a rough go of it so far this year. Microsoft Windows Vista has been less than an outright success and Gartner is saying that “Windows is collapsing.” Both Red Hat and Novell openly shared last month that a profitable consumer desktop product was not in the foreseeable future for either company. Somewhat grim. And yet onto these hostile waters Sun this week floated the first formal release from Project Indiana, OpenSolaris 05.2008. The OpenSolaris charter states it is “well-suited for desktops, laptops, servers, and data centers.” Let’s tackle those first two.

The early reviews of the OpenSolaris desktop are mostly positive save a few hardware support issues (what OS doesn’t suffer this fate these days?) but it really matters very little. The biggest problem is that OpenSolaris is a 3-year-old project attempting to solve a problem that we don’t really have anymore. We don’t need another OS. We need tools that allow us to be less dependent on operating systems and the companies that create them.

Let’s back up a bit. First, desktop operating systems bore me. They all have some things I like and some things that drive me up a wall, but, honestly, operating systems aren’t a religious issue for me. OSes are tools and if the tools don’t inhibit me from doing my job then I’m not going to take too much of an issue with them. Not everyone is like that. I know people that when they see a car they start waxing poetic about engineering, horsepower, clean lines, &c. Me, I see four wheels and a seat. So, yeah, you can go on-and-on about ZFS, super-clean codebases, and whatever you like, but it’s falling on deaf ears. And here’s where Sun runs into a problem, because I’m probably their target audience for OpenSolaris: tech-savvy, not too frantic about licenses, business user, and not too dependent on specialized applications. But in today’s world, this combination doesn’t compel me to try out a new OS. We are — finally! — past operating systems. Let me give you an example.

Last week my primary computer got hit by lightning and is now serving as a very attractive doorstop until I can take it into the shop. So, I’ve been using whatever computer is at hand and as a result bouncing from OS to OS. In the past seven days I’ve used Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows XP and Vista, and Ubuntu and all-in-all I’d say I really only lost about 2 hours of work, mostly resetting passwords and digging up SSH keys. How is this possible? Because 90% of the applications I use or the data I interact with is uncoupled from the desktop operating system: it’s running in a browser, it’s on a remote server, it’s in a database somewhere. And that is as it should be. Three years ago this wasn’t the case because it wasn’t quite possible yet. Parts of Sun have figured this out — they also released JavaFX this week — but other parts are firmly rooted in 2005.

To give you a sense of how archaic I feel releasing OpenSolaris now is, let’s look at another technology company, Google, and what they released in 2005:

  • Google Maps API
  • Google Talk
  • Acquired Urchin and made Web Analytics free
  • Video search beta
  • RSS-enabled Google News
  • Google Reader
  • Gmail Mobile

All of these items either changed how I got work done or positively affected what I considered was possible with modern computing. And none of them had anything to do with an operating system. And this was three years ago, three years from now the word “desktop” is going to sound very dusty indeed.1 More-and-more, this falling away of restrictions — restricted to place or operating systems — not access to a kernel codebase I’m never going to touch, is becoming my definition of “freedom.”

To be honest, I’m not even sure Sun views OpenSolaris as a real operating system. It seems more like a technology preview vehicle for IPS, ZFS, DTrace, SMF, and whatever cool stuff Sun has built recently and would rather not integrated into Linux. But maybe I’m missing something. Maybe what the world needs is more desktop operating systems. Maybe you’re critically dependant on your OS and your world would grind to a halt without many of it’s special features. Me? I’ve got four wheels. I’ve got a seat. And the last time I saw something that fundamentally changed how I thought about a desktop operating system it was 1999 and it was Mac OS X. It’s been nearly 10 years of yawns since then.

1 Update: While I missed it when it first came out earlier this week, you might check out this NetworkWorld article, “Desktop of the Future” for more on this topic.

Comments on "Sun Launches OpenSolaris on a Post-OS World"


Wow – refreshing. I actually share your sentiments. I have a home office and in it several windows and linux machines. They have their purpose for sure, but I don’t get nearly as excited about all of this as I once did.


The biggest change for me in the last few years has been moving over to KDE and konqueror.

the ability to access a web site in one tab and files on my system in another, all within one window, makes computing much less of a chore.

there is nothing really new to get excited about computing though.
we are still locked into the same old input devices and while the apps have more wizz and fizz, a spread sheet is still a set of rows and columns the same as it was on an apple II in 1980.


You are quite correct, sir. To me, an OS is about 90% useless trash and the bits I need to actually run what few things I really need.

Red Hat at 5 discs? Microsquash on a DVD? I used to have all the “OS” I needed on a bootable floppy.


Do you mean that pressing “CTRL+PgUp” is much easier than pressing “Alt-TAB” :->

I fail to see what other difference there is.


There are other elements to life than basic functionality….Art also has a place in my world.


Art is a pretty big part of my life as well, @markkie. I studied architecture in college. Heck, I wrote a book on architecture — good grief — 10 years ago.

But I’m not sure how art fits into this discussion. Are you talking about computing environments as a form of art or the OS being able to run the programs that allow us to create art.

If it’s the former, I’d be interested to know what distro you’re running. ;-) If the later, then I consider running said programs to be base OS functionality that doesn’t require all the bells and whistles of a 5-disc RHEL install. But I also believe that these programs won’t live on the desktop forever.

The point I was trying to make was that developing operating systems is hard work. And, if you architect a new OS in the same way as every other OS has been built for the last 30 years, then it’s also wasted work.

And the OS companies know this. That’s why they spend so much time building nonsense windows transitions or adding transparency (or 3D) to everything; they’re out of ideas so they burn cycles on window dressing.


I agree to many of the things stated here.
I also remember when OS fit on a floppy, but wait a minute, RHEL came with 2000 applications that don’t really can be viewed as OS. 4 mail programs, 3 spreadsheets, 7 text editors to choice , even 3 different desktops !!!!
OS now days are bloated , no question, but what came on the disks is not the problem. You can lean your installation using some sense.

You can use OpenSolaris or any other OS for desktops. The real question is:

Do you really consider Solaris a desktop OS? It can be… But in fact it is a server OS. The web browser that provides you with the tools you like to use is talking to apps on systems running server OSes.

The coders on the Linux and OpenSolaris teams don’t necessarily have access to servers so they have developed some nice desktop features.

Most Linux and Solaris / OpenSolaris systems in business, technology and education are servers.


The death of desktop operating systems is something many people have been ranting about, and throwing mud at OpenSolaris for saying it can be used as a desktop OS is somewhat unfair. The people who really care about operating systems these days are the people running huge services such as google.com, OpenDNS, and mobile devices. It turns out the FlOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) is used heavily by these online services. google uses Linux heavily, OpenDNS uses some variant of a free BSD (netBSD, freeBSD, etc), and mobile devices (except in the US) are heavily Linux based. Every device or web service needs an OS, and right now very smart people choose OSes based on their merits for what they are trying to accomplish with these devices or web services. If OpenSolaris provides some features that other OSes don’t, it may well be used to run some sweet online services someday.

As far as a desktop OS goes, it seems really to be Windows vs. everything else. Windows is a giant malware/virus cesspool, and so far the other OSes are fairly clean. So using Linux vs. Mac OS X vs. Open Solaris probably doesn’t matter to most users if they want to be safe these sorts of nasty things, but it may matter to the person who built the device they are using (or the person supporting that device for the user!).

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