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Innovation

Haiku is an open-source operating system for those who miss NeXTStep

If you're looking for something different and remember NeXTStep before it was bought by Apple, Haiku OS might be just the operating system you've been looking for.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer on
Reviewed by Min Shin
Woman using laptop in office.
iStockphoto/Getty Images

When Steve Jobs made his return to Apple, the company was facing some stiff competition by way of the NeXTStep platform, which was created at Jobs' other company, NeXT. But instead of competing, Apple purchased NeXT. 

At the same time, Jean-Louis Gassée left Apple to create a company called Be Inc., who developed BeOS, which focused on creating the fastest disk I/O, rendering, and kernel on the market. 

Instead of competing with Jobs' other company, Apple bought NeXT and then modified the OS to become the new OS X and iPhone OS 1. 

But what happened to BeOS? It now lives on as the Haiku Project.

I first tested Haiku years ago and was thrilled that an OS opted to offer an AfterStep-like interface. Of course, it turns out AfterStep (which was my favorite Linux desktop back in the day) was actually based on NeXT, so it all kind of comes full circle.

Also: How to choose the right Linux desktop distribution

The Haiku Project started with an initial release on September 14, 2009. The surprising thing is that it's only now reached beta 4. That's right, after 14 years, the operating system has yet to crawl out of beta. But that can happen when a project is worked on by volunteers. What shouldn't be surprising is, after 14 years, Haiku is really stable and exceptionally fast. 

However, Haiku isn't for just anyone; not even every Linux user would appreciate the OS. Haiku is for those who experienced either NeXT or AfterStep and want an operating system that looks and feels a bit old school but performs faster than any OS they've ever experienced.

What is so good about Haiku (besides the wonderful NeXTStep UI)? First off, it includes a customized kernel that is designed specifically for speed, includes a rich object-oriented API for fast development, uses a database-like file system that supports indexed metadata, and has a unified interface.

You can install Haiku B4 on most hardware (old and new) from Intel, Apple Silicon, and Arm-based computers. I installed Haiku B4 as a virtual machine with VirtualBox and found it to be one of the fastest operating systems I've used in a very long time.

Also: How to install Kali Linux on Apple Silicon Macs

Of course, Haiku isn't going to challenge Linux, MacOS, or Windows. That's just not happening. But as a throwback to old-school ways, an operating system for those who like to be different, or something to do for fun, Haiku might be just the ticket to sate those needs.

What does Haiku look like?

To begin with, unless you've used either NeXTStep or AfterStep, Haiku looks like no other operating system you've ever experienced. Haiku is so different you'll probably find yourself wondering how to even interact with the desktop.

The default Haiku desktop.

Haiku OS has a very AfterStep-like UI.

Image: Jack Wallen

First off, you click the feather button at the top right of the desktop, which opens the main Haiku menu. From there, you can select Applications to see what is all installed by default. You'll find plenty of applications. At the same time, you'll find a lot of important pieces missing. 

The Haiku main menu.

Accessing the Haiku main menu from the feather button.

Image: Jack Wallen

There's no browser or email client. How do you install them? If you click Applications > HaikuDepot, the app installer will open, where you can install any of the available applications, such as Otter Browser or the Beam email client.

The Haiku application installer.

The HaikuDepot is where you install applications.

Image: Jack Wallen

Surprisingly, there are two office suites available to install, Calligra Suite (from KDE) and LibreOffice. You'll find LibreOffice in the All packages tab of the HaikuDepot app. 

Also: What's new in LibreOffice and how do you install it on MacOS?

The installation of LibreOffice takes some time but once installed, it runs like a champ. One thing to keep in mind, however, is the version available for installation on Haiku is out of date. Where the current stable version of LibreOffice is 7.4, the version available to Haiku is 6.4. 

LibreOffice installed on Haiku.

LibreOffice on Haiku is a bit out of date.

Image: Jack Wallen

Should you try Haiku?

I tried Haiku out of sheer curiosity back in the early days of its first beta. Now it's more for the fun of using an interface that I really enjoyed when I took my first steps with Linux. Would I suggest Haiku for everyday use? No. But for anyone who likes to tinker and learn new ways of working, Haiku will certainly bring you plenty of joy in making it function as an alternative operating system. 

Haiku is fast, fun, and without much in the way of frills. If that sounds like an OS you might want to try, I would recommend downloading an ISO and either installing it on a spare computer or spinning it up as a virtual machine.

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