Grant McWilliams

Tech Technology The OS that could.... but didn't - AmigaOS/AROS

The OS that could.... but didn't - AmigaOS/AROS

Sometimes you are in the trenches and you can't see anything but dirt. On occasion you're allowed to stand on a step ladder to get an idea of where you are. I just got that opportunity yesterday. In the mid 90s I started using Windows as my primary OS, then soon after ran Windows and Linux simultaneously. By 2002 I'd deleted all of my Windows clients and servers and having owned a version of Windows since. However, this is not my entire history in the computing world. Throughout the mid 80s and early 90s I used Amigas (yes, I'm one of those). If you're unaware of what the Amiga is you might want to look it up on wikipedia as they have a decent article on the history and collapse of the Amiga. In short it was created by a small group of geniuses who didn't posses enough capital to go anywhere with it. It was then sold to an incredibly ignorant company - Commodore. Commodore went from being the 10th largest PC company in the world to bankrupt in about 2 years in the early 90s. Then Amiga was sold to a European PC company called Escom who also went bankrupt a couple of years later. Then it was sold again to Gateway 2000 who did next to nothing with it for a few years and in 2000 it was sold again to some investors who created Amiga Inc. No new computers have been released in 15 years and yet people keep paying for this thing and you may be confused as to why. That's understandable so I'll try to explain.



The Amiga was an incredibly efficient hardware platform and OS. It multitasked beautifully, had custom chips etc... It however, didn't keep up and none of the companies that purchased it after Commodore really accomplished anything. Yesterday when I was digging through some of my google reader news I saw an announcement for AROS. Ah memories. Perhaps more history is needed. When Commodore went bankrupt people didn't know what was going to happen to their beloved machine. When Escom went bankrupt they really got worried so several people took it upon themselves to reverse engineer the AmigaOS so it could live on - one of those projects was called Amiga Replacement Operating System or AROS. Normally I wouldn't have paid any attention because I haven't used Amigas for years but about a month ago I found this video showing a graphical animation of changelog activity in the Amiga OS development. You'll want to watch it in the highest resolution in full screen to get the best idea of what's going on.

That video showed there has been more AmigaOS development in the last 5 years then ever before. That video made me click on the AROS news item which made me realize that the development of AROS never stopped which in itself is shocking. I've never paid much attention to AROS before because it was compiled for PowerPC CPUs which I don't possess. Now there's Intel X86 versions and a live CD too!

So that prompted me to download the CD and install it in VirtualBox. I've decided to give you the instructions here.


Since the AmigaOS is NOT Linux, has no real commercial backing and has virtually zero chance of amounting to anything why am I posting it here? Perspective. It's about climbing out of the Foxhole and looking around. You see the other day I replaced Ubuntu Netbook Remix on my Netbook with Linux Mint XFCE DE because with Ubuntu I only had 150 MB of ram left after a clean boot. With Mint XFCE DE I had 512 MB. To me that's a huge savings but is also an indicator of how bloated Linux has gotten. No, it's not any worse than anything else out there but we've come a long way in our methods to add bloat and installing AROS will give you a new viewpoint of how efficient something can be. This might make you think more when you're developing software about what's really going on.

I wish now that someone with deep pockets and vision would have open sourced the Amiga OS years ago and targeted Smartphones. It would make an incredible Smartphone OS. Alas, it didn't happen and it's all history now but fun to think of.

So the Live version of AROS is called Icaros (get it?) and my first impression was "Good God how did this boot so fast?". Even inside a Virtual Machine it's unbelievably fast. We all know how Live Linux CDs go, you click on something then you wait, then you click and you wait. With Icaros you can't tell it's running live and you can't tell it's being virtualized that's how slim it is. Once you have it booted you need to install it which doesn't take that long. Once installed you need to make it work on your screen which I've outlined in my instructions. Then you need to figure out what in the world you should use it for. AmigaOS takes a lot of bits from other operating systems like Unix but is something completely new. To be honest I found myself staring at the screen looking dumb because it's been a long time.
A few things to know about AmigaOS/AROS
  1. An applications menu is at the top of the screen. Move your mouse to the top then press the right mouse button
  2. AmigaOS/AROS has a concept of screens. Sort of like having multiple desktops but they can be spawned on the fly. Some applications like Lunapaint have a setting to "clone wanderer" or "use wanderer". This means to spawn a new screen or open on the main desktop screen.
  3. You can see two screens at once by grabbing the screen title bar and pulling down with the mouse. You can flip between them with the gadget at the top right of the screen.
  4. You can also flip between screens by using Left Windows - m. Left Windows -n always takes you back to the main screen
  5. Every button on the interface can be configured and even the space between them. We used to call this MUI but apparently in AROS it's Zune.
  6. There's a concept of having a working RAMDISK all the time in AmigaOS/AROS holding the running config. You can open it by double clicking the Ramdisk icon on the desktop. All dialog boxes have a USE button and a SAVE button. The USE button changes the running config and the SAVE button changes the config on the disk. I miss this. In Linux terms it would be like having /etc/ in ram.
  7. There are three ways of interacting with an application - gui, commandline (AmigaDOS) and AREXX. I won't even begin to get into that here. Manual on AmigaDos. I'd forgotten how nice AmigaDos was.
  8. AmigaDOS is a mix of many other commandline interfaces and doesn't take 100% from any. The wikipedia article on AmigaDOS is a pretty good overview and includes volume naming and some filesystem flag stuff.
  9. AREXX is very very cool but I won't get into that now. In short it allows you to manipulate a program while it's running. This is an odd concept coming from other Operating Systems. If Linux were this way I could start the Gimp, then tell it via a script to go load a file, do some stuff to it and save it. This is a very very simple example. I used to have programs controlling and communicating with other programs. IBM owned REXX and a couple of years ago released it under the GPL license. I have fond memories of AREXX. Following is an example of AREXX code:
/* script to remove mods and demos from aminet recent files */
/* call it via rx de-mod.rexx input output */

parse upper arg input output .

if open('oldfile',input,'read') then do
if open('newfile',output,'write') then do
do while ~eof('oldfile')
if pos('demo', line, 20)=20 then iterate
if pos('smpl', line, 24)~=24 & pos('mod', line, 20)=20 then iterate
writeln('newfile', line)

Here's some thoughts that came to me after running Icaros (and a few suggestions)
  1. Fix the screenmode as I did in my Howto Install Icaros in VirtualBox
  2. Run it in full screen mode
  3. My first impression - it's ugly - it doesn't have to be, that's just Icaros theme
  4. It's incredibly quick. You open a window and it just appears. I didn't realize I could see Linux drawing my windows until now. With Icaros you can't see the window being drawn it opens so fast. And this is in a Virtual environment with no graphic acceleration
  5. It boots scary fast.
  6. Open a web browser and type in in the URL bar and wonder how it can load a webpage instantly
  7. Some websites don't load at all - I think it's a javascript thing
  8. I've been trained to work slow in Windows and Linux. Even the concept of copy and paste is slow. Directory Opus will show you this so spend a little time with it. It will feel foreign coming from the world of "Let's open two windows, browse to two locations, highlight files, copy them, then click on the other window and select paste". If you manage to get the hang of Directory Opus you'll be wondering why modern OSes suck so much.
  9. It's sad this thing didn't last, it really is. I'd dedicate a bunch of time to the project but it's a lot like voting for an independent party for president.
  10. Icaros is buggy. There's quite a lot of software that will lock it up. Also there are configuration variables that aren't filled. I tried changing themes and it complained.

So with that in mind here are some things you can play with.

  1. Open Directory Opus from the task bar and get to know it. Left click to select, right click to go back a directory. Buttons have a right and left click as well. You can "click-m-click" too. This means click on a directory in the left window and very quickly click the right window. This directory will now be loaded in the right. Also making the Directory Opus window full screen will allow you to click on the left and right most areas which act as parent buttons.
  2. Open Lunapaint and play around. If you haven't messed up your screen resolution like I have it's really nice to work with.
  3. Play some demos, that will bring back memories.
The following photo shows how you can drag a screen down to see a screen behind it. Fun stuff.

Tech Technology The OS that could.... but didn't - AmigaOS/AROS