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Linux - A MINIX lookalike

Imitation and replication can have limitations, but can also bring positive outcomes. Hunter S. Thompson is said to have typed out the entire manuscript of The Great Gatsby while a student, just to see how it was done, which did no harm to his later career as a Gonzo journalist. According to the story by Jorge Luis Borges, his character Pierre Menard set out to rewrite Don Quixote from scratch and replicated every word and punctuation mark, but even so his version was infinitely better than the original.

Work that was begun in imitation can sometimes outgrow its original inspiration. GNU began as a project to make "a complete UNIX-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix)", and Linus Torvalds' first announcement of Linux on Oct 5, 1991 told his readers that Linux was going to be "a free version of a MINIX-look-alike for AT-386 computers."

Torvalds' chose the GPL for his license and the right developers showed up to form a community around the code, and because of happenstance and the gift of multiple talents, Linux outgrew its inspiration in a few short months and became something else. GNU wasn't UNIX. Linux wasn't MINIX, but the starting point was a might-have-been - a completely free UNIX-like operating system - and, like all good things, GNU/Linux has overtaken the ideas that inspired it. Reproducing the best of BeOS or DOS or may not be such a bad idea after all.

Amigos and others - back to the future

Haiku is just one of many open source operating systems that aim to be more or less faithful to the operating systems from which they are derived. Some stay around, some fork and some disappear. Their appeal sometimes depends on the appeal of the original OS.

One of the most loved of operating systems was Amiga OS 3.1, dating back to 1985, loved because of effective use of pre-emption, multitasking and ease of use in a tiny space. Amiga OS gave rise to many imitators. The best of the replicas is AROS (the AROS Research Operating System), which is a free implementation of Amiga OS 3.1 "at the API level (like Wine, unlike UAE)".

Excluding Linux and the BSDs the most stable and longlived of the free operating systems is probably FreeDOS, a project begun by Jim Hall in June 1994 when Microsoft announced it was ending support for MS-DOS. FreeDOS will run on most standard PCs. As with most legacy operating systems its greatest use is for running old games or redeeming legacy home and office software, although it is sometimes used by hardware manufacturers in embedded devices.

The oddest and most unlikely free operating system is probably ReactOS, which emerged from the FreeWin95 project in 1998 with the objective of writing Windows NT from scratch as free software.

The rationale of the ReactOS developers is that Linux will never appeal to ordinary users, and Windows will. They reason that the architecture of Windows NT, later Windows XP, is "well known for its extensibility, portability, reliability, robustness, performance and compatibility." So their aim is to come up with a drop-in replacement for Windows which is just like the real thing, but secure.

ReactOS has reached alpha release, claims to have "a pretty stable kernel and a substantial implementation of various APIs for most higher level work and standard libraries," and will run games such as Quake, Unreal Tournament and Diablo 2 and "other applications like AbiWord and Firefox." The ReactOS developers also contribute heavily to the development of the Wine interface for Windows programs on Linux.

For the other operating systems of the last thirty years there are countless emulators and simulators, written for the same purpose, to relive the experience, play games or reach into the hole and recover lost and missing data.

Next: Arcadia - Emulation and retro-gaming

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