helloSystem 0.8: A friendly, all-graphical FreeBSD

After almost a year, version 0.8 of the helloSystem is here: an easy-to-use graphical distribution based on FreeBSD 13.1 aiming to offer a different way forward for people looking to leave Apple's macOS – or contemporary Linux.

The Reg looked at helloSystem version 0.5 in 2021, as well as the underlying FreeBSD 13.1 more recently. Version 0.6 followed in September 2021 and 0.7 in December. Development has slowed since but continues to tick along.

The new version is based on the latest FreeBSD, version 13.1. It includes various improvements described in the release notes, including pre-installed VirtualBox guest additions, an improved Linux subsystem, plus support for (some) applications packaged in the AppImage cross-distro format. This is not surprising as the same developer – Simon "probono" Peter – is behind both projects.

Version 0.8 of the helloSystem has a friendly, if minimal, Mac-like desktop and a decent selection of apps for a pre-1.0 OS.

Version 0.8 of the helloSystem has a friendly, minimal, Mac-like desktop and a decent selection of apps for a pre-1.0 OS

Herr Peter is a long-time FOSS developer. One of his more notable previous projects was PureDarwin, an effort to turn the open source core of Mac OS X, which is released as FOSS by Apple, into a standalone PC OS.

On the helloSystem GitHub page, the description reads:

Desktop system for creators with a focus on simplicity, elegance, and usability. Based on FreeBSD. Less, but better!

This is a bold claim, and it's not there yet, but then its version number is yet to reach that all-important 1.0. The idea is to create a simple, stripped-down desktop edition of FreeBSD with a desktop interface resembling Apple's macOS. The ISO boots straight into a live graphical desktop, which resembles a Mac from the old days of Mac OS X around Snow Leopard. The theme resembles Aqua, there are desktop drive icons like Macs of old, and a single global menu bar at the top of the screen.

However, the resemblance is only skin deep. The menu layout is not much like macOS at all, with a search button at top left instead of the Apple menu, followed by a System menu containing a list of applications, and no dock – which is odd because that was present and working in older releases.

It installs quickly and easily on VirtualBox, and runs well. We tried it on a couple of testbed machines, though, and while it boots happily from a Ventoy multiboot USB key, the installation failed to complete on our testbed ThinkPad. That was running FreeBSD 13.1 successfully. It's not anymore.

A significant limitation in this release is that it can only install onto a complete hard disk. It doesn't yet support installing into an existing partition, so the only way to dual-boot is to dedicate an entire disk to it. It's a known issue, and has been for a while, but it's one we'd really like to see fixed.

The System menu contains a couple of dozen apps, including some familiar names: Blender, Firefox, GIMP, Inkscape, Krita, LibreOffice, Scribus, Thunderbird, and more. Most are not pre-loaded, but will be fetched from the internet and installed when you click on their menu entry. If you spend most of your time inside apps, this is already a usable OS. That reflects the completeness of the underlying FreeBSD, which is a perfectly capable OS, and supports plenty of well-known desktop FOSS apps.

The problem is that the FreeBSD installation process is complex, fiddly, and there's not much help in the process of getting a graphical desktop up and running. There have been several such efforts, including FuryBSD, which provided the original basis of the helloSystem, but which is now dead. Another was PC-BSD, which we mentioned in passing back in 2010, but that got acquired by TrueNAS creators iXsystems, renamed to TrueOS and then discontinued. As that discontinuation page mentions, there are alternatives, including GhostBSD and MidnightBSD, plus NomadBSD, which is intended to run from a bootable USB key.

We feel that at present, the helloSystem goes a bit too far the other way. There's no dock, and while you can open folders easily enough from the desktop's Go menu, the Filer lacks a toolbar or a sidebar. It's usable and the core functionality is there, but we feel that the maintainers have bitten off a larger task than necessary. There is already a somewhat Mac-like desktop out there, complete with various accessory applications, in the form of GNUstep. GNUstep is a long-running and somewhat schizophrenic project, which has implemented a NeXTstep-like desktop environment more or less by accident while implementing a set of Objective-C libraries compatible with Apple's Cocoa framework.

We asked Simon Peter why he didn't use the existing GNUstep environment. He told us:

Before starting helloSystem, I had actually put together a FreeBSD based Live ISO using GNUstep: LIVEstep.

While I like many of the concepts in GNUstep, there are few real-world applications for it and I could not get a consistent look and feel across GNUstep and other applications. Also I was not sure whether it was a good idea to invest into Objective-C at this point anymore, when Apple is using Swift nowadays. Since most applications I am using on a daily basis are cross-platform and many of them are written in Qt, it seemed logical to choose Qt as the native toolkit for helloSystem.

He does have a point. While the GNUstep frameworks are quite complete at this point, and there are a number of GNUstep-based apps out there, creating a desktop environment is not the project's main focus. Running non-GNUstep apps in the GNUstep environment does lead to mismatches in theme and appearance, but also different menu bars, control keys and so on.

There are other projects aiming at comparable goals. NeXTspace is a distro based on CentOS Linux and GNUstep. This was looking very promising back in 2020, but developer Sergii "Trunkmaster" Stoian is Ukrainian, and understandably has more important things on his mind right now.

The helloSystem itself has already been forked, and the result, originally called airyxOS, is now called ravynOS. This has even more ambitious goals, including attempting to offer some degree of application compatibility with macOS, via GNUstep's libobjc2 library and the Cocotron frameworks.

Compared to these projects, the goals of the helloSystem seem relatively modest and sensible. The project already has some helpful documentation, which is an important step, and the Qt framework that Peter is using is already complete and functional. A simple graphical FreeBSD, with its own unique Mac-like desktop, and support for Linux apps from Debian and Alpine, would be a useful tool.

In macOS Ventura, Apple has already dropped support for all Mac models from before 2017. For now, it still sells the Xeon-based Mac Pro, but some time after that is discontinued, support for all Intel-based Macs will surely cease. As we have commented before, most Linux desktops are Windows-like, and none are especially Mac-like in look and feel, let alone in simplicity of function. Meanwhile, the Linux world has a profusion of rival distros, desktops, and packaging formats.

The helloSystem aims to cut through that especially tangled Gordian knot. It's not quite sharp enough to get through it yet, but the potential is definitely there. ®

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