Your computer may have come with Windows or macOS. These operating systems appear to be free, but they are not. Manufacturers have to pay Microsoft for Windows, and macOS updates are only available to people who have purchased Macs. With us, the cost is hidden in the price of the computer.
There are many operating systems that are actually free. Linux is the most popular, but read on. By the time you finish this list, Linux appears to be downright mainstream. Here are ten weird or obscure operating systems that most of us have never heard of.
If you're using a free operating system that isn't Linux, it's likely BSD based. FreeBSD is just one of several UNIX-like operating systems. Others include NetBSD, OpenBSD, and PC-BSD. Whichever one you're using, a lot of the experience is similar to what you'll find on Linux. Free and open source software that is available to one can usually run on the other.
3 UNIX-like non-Linux operating systems
Recently, people started to confuse "UNIX" with "Linux". Linux was influenced by UNIX, but UNIX systems have no relationship with Linux. Here are some important UNIX-based systems you should know about.
Even if you're not a free software enthusiast, you may be using parts of FreeBSD without realizing it. Due to the permitted license of the project, part of the code has found its way into Apple MacOS, Sony PlayStation 4 and Juniper routers.
Most free operating systems offer an alternative to Windows. ReactOS strives for it, so to speak His Windows. The goal is to enable users to run software made for Windows without having to purchase an operating system from Microsoft.
ReactOS is a free, open source operating system, so it cannot use any of the actual Windows codes. The project has implemented many Windows APIs in part and works with the Wine project to get programs running.
Do you live in the terminal? Did you use computers when it was the only option? Do you have fond memories of MS-DOS?
With FreeDOS you can relive this bygone era. With the barebone operating system you can run old DOS programs on modern hardware or in a virtual machine. Or you can just use it to run old games.
Photo credit: Haiku
Haiku takes inspiration from BeOS. Draw spaces? Me too. BeOS was a graphical operating system that was developed by Be Inc for the BeBox in 1995. The operating system persisted for five years before the last update was released in 2000.
BeOS might not have been a household name, but it caught some users and some wanted to see the operating system live enough to create their own open source version. The goal is for software written for BeOS to work on Haiku, much like ReactOS wants to do on Windows. All in all, the haiku team probably has an easier job.
Oracle used to maintain an operating system called Solaris. It was originally closed source, but the project opened in 2008. Oracle retired OpenSolaris in 2010 and reverted to a proprietary model with Solaris 11 in 2011.
illumos is an attempt to keep OpenSolaris alive. As with Linux, you don't download illumos directly. Instead, use a distribution like DilOS or openindiana.
6th syllable (broken URL removed)
Photo credit: Adam "Speaktrap" Ga? Ek / Wikimedia
The syllable is based on AtheOS, an AmigaOS clone that was abandoned around the turn of the century. AmigaOS is still alive, although it was born in the 80s for a number of computers that were long thought to be ancient.
The syllable is aimed at home and home users with an easy-to-use interface and native apps, including a Webkit-based web browser and email client. This can be done on a computer with only 32MB of RAM (although at least 64MB is recommended for browsing). The full installation should only take up about 250 MB of hard disk space.
While Syllable is based on an AmigaOS clone, AROS takes a different approach. It should actually be binary compatible with AmigaOS at API level. This is similar to the way ReactOS targets Windows and Haiku targets BeOS.
You may be wondering if AmigaOS is worth paying so much attention to. Did I mention that AmigaOS is still there? It's not free either. Someone out there is still willing to pay for an operating system that most people have never heard of. AROS offers the possibility to use some AmigaOS programs without having to hand over any money. It's also open source, which may make you feel more secure.
Here's the thing about MenuetOS – it's small enough to fit on a single floppy disk. These were the flash drives of the 90s and they only offered up to 1.44MB of storage. Given that many Linux distributions have a hard time fitting onto a 700MB CD, booting from a floppy disk is difficult to fathom these days.
MenuetOS is written entirely in 32/64 bit assembly language and can be run with very little overhead, although it supports up to 32 GB of RAM.
Do all desktop operating systems feel a bit the same? Here's a strange operating system that takes a different approach. When you start DexOS, you have less of the feeling of using the computer in keyboard lessons than of playing games on a simple home game console.
Launching applications in DexOS vaguely feels like inserting a CD into an old Dreamcast. The experience seems more authentic when you are actually playing a game. And another cool thing? This free operating system is also small enough to fit on a floppy disk. Try putting a version on a Raspberry Pi.
Like DexOS, Visopsys is a single developer's hobby project. Try this out when you want another look at how much a single person can create.
The visual operating system (admittedly a name that could potentially apply to any operating system with a desktop environment) has been in development since 1997. Impressively, it is not based on an existing operating system. That is not to say that the project is not using any pre-existing code. This is where you'll find common GNU tools, and the icons may be familiar to KDE Plasma users.
Would you use one of these free operating systems?
Most of them — no. Haiku developers don't do haiku full-time. The Visopsys developer specifically says that the operating system is not as functional as Linux or, perhaps a fair comparison, syllable. DexOS is more of an experiment than anything else.
Even so, there are many people who prefer FreeBSD over Linux. illumos may not be a household name even among FOSS aficionados, but it has its uses. And did I mention FreeDOS is being used to play all those old DOS games?
However, if you want to stick with a free operating system that is used by millions of people every day, there are plenty of great Linux distributions to discover.
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About the author
(324 articles published)
Bertel is a digital minimalist who writes from a laptop with physical privacy switches and an operating system recommended by the Free Software Foundation. He values ethics over functions and helps others take control of their digital lives.
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