KolibriOS - The art of small


Updated: March 16, 2012


This article includes a Flash movie!

How much is an operating system worth? Are you excited when you hear about this or that system that boots with as little as 16MB of RAM? Well, that's nothing special. DOS used to do it with far, far less. Even Windows managed fine back in 1995. How about a modern operating system? Say, 8MB of RAM, 3MB in size, 3 seconds boot? Year 2012? Sounds good.

KolibriOS is a small, open-source operating system written entirely in Assembly, the language of dragons and savants and uber-gifted, capable of doing just that. Assembly means you get WARP 9 without sweating. And it's small enough to be squeezed onto a floppy or near as. Not surprisingly is it named after the gigantic avian called colibri. All right, let's review.

Teaser

Having fun - three seconds to glory

On paper, KolibriOS has or can do all of the following - run on an IA32 compatible processor with as little as 8MB of memory, boot from a variety of devices, including NTFS partitions as well as from within Windows itself,preemptive multi-tasking, VESA graphics support, AC97 audio support, FAT/FAT16/FAT32, CDFS and partial NTFS/EXT2/EXT3 filesystem support, and a few more things besides.

I tested this tiny operating system in VirtualBox on top of Ubuntu, although in theory, it can boot natively just fine, plus there's a handful of Web articles claiming people having successfully dual-booted KolibriOS with various Linux distributions.

I allocated a more than sufficient 64MB of RAM to KolibriOS and let it fly. Now, to really show you how fast this thing is, I recorded a boot session. It shows the simple KolibriOS boot menu. Next, I press the Enter key. Soon thereafter, we are inside a fully functional desktop. How soon? Well, you can enjoy the video embedded below or follow the Youtube link if you hate embedded stuff. Now, keep your eyes on the screen, as the video is rather short. I mean, really, really short.

And the Youtube link for the rest of you.

I recorded the video using gtk-recordMyDesktop. Then, I converted the .ogv file to .avi using mencoder and finally pruned some unnecessary extra frames with Avidemux. This is similar to what I did in my Frankenstein video.

As you can see, it takes less than 3 seconds to boot. This includes me moving the mouse cursor in and out of the virtual machine, as well as running the image from an external USB drive that is also powering the operating system. All in all, this is ultra-turbo-impressive.

Other stuff

Apart from defeating the laws of physics, is KolibriOS any good? Well, it's definitely not a rival to multi-hundred-megabytes systems out there in terms of beauty and functionality, but it still manages to deliver a reasonable repertoire of programs and games. You have network, sound and there's even support for some ATI cards.

Anyhow, here's KolibriOS in action:

Boot menu

The desktop, slightly changed with a new background:

Nice desktop

Browsing Dedoimedo!

Browsing

In the menu, you will find a handful of useful things. The system comes with a TFTP client, mail clients, NewsGroups reader, Telnet, IRC client, and even VNC viewer and a Yahoo! compatible messenger. There's also a music player, although I did not succeed playing music from CD.

Menu

Menu, more

You also tweak system settings to your liking, mount and umount devices and change drivers. The system menu comes up in Russian, but it fairly trivial to change the desired language. Several interface and system menu languages are supported, including German and French.

System settings

System settings, zoomed

And there's other stuff. You have file manager, a dozen games, command line, debugger, and still more. In a way, KolibriOS is the non-Linux equivalent of Slitaz and Puppy, only it is approx. 10-30 times lighter. This is truly remarkable.

Running

Running more

As a closing word, speaking of weird and unique operating systems, you might want to read this lovely article. Indeed, I may yet give some of the other choices an extra moment or three. At the moment, I think Plan 9 would be interesting, as well as its unholy-named successor called Inferno. Haiku, done. And I'm wondering if I'll ever get a chance to take OS/2 for a spin. Enough babbling.

Conclusion

KolibriOS is a remarkable project. It is labeled as a hobby, but this does not diminish its quality, beauty or potential. Although it is unlikely it will ever flourish into a commercial grade desktop alternative, it does show the amazing resourcefulness and skill of everyone involved. Just think about it. 3MB of raw computing power. That's art in my lexicon.

This tiny Godzilla is first and foremost a technology demonstrator, but it is also a functional, useful operating system. It will not replace your Windows or Mac or whatever you might be using, but it proves that things can be done a little differently from what you know and believe in. As far as I'm concerned, KolibriOS is a major win. Kudos.

P.S. Thumbnail image of the colibri bird on the index page and the software & security page taken from Wikipedia and licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

Cheers.

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