Operating System

Back to Open Slate Home Page Date: 2010.02.09 (2010.02.18)


When Alan Kay wrote "A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages" back in 1972 ( he described his visionary DynaBook as best he could, given the fact that nothing like it existed. He wrote about the screen, the keyboard, mass storage, and fonts. Missing from this seminal work is any mention of an operating system. More than likely this was because at that time a good operating system, like Unix, demanded enormous resources, far beyond anything a portable device could be expected to have. It would be five more years before large, desktop personal computers had any sort of recognizable OS (I speak of C/PM). What nobody predicted was the rate of growth of hardware technology (measured by speed, capacity, size, cost, and power efficiency), or the emergence of open-source systems software. These two threads have combined to provide us with the opportunity to design a DynaBook-like system with a fully functional Unix OS.


There are many good choices for the Open Slate OS. There is no need to settle on a single solution. The essential criteria are that it be


This is not the place to debate what is and is not open-source. For the purpose of this project, all known Linux distributions and FreeBSD fulfill this requirement, whereas Microsoft and Apple OSes do not.


What is supportable will depend most of all on the technical support staff overseeing a particular implementation. There is value to be had in standardization -- a single set of reference material, for example -- but there is no denying the fact that a support team led by someone steeped in the lore of Ubuntu Linux will be more effective using Ubuntu than the same team struggling to maintain Red Hat or FreeBSD.


Whatever the choice, it has to provide the services required by Chalk Dust. For this reason many so-called embedded solutions fail to make the cut. Small and efficient are no comfort when the required service levels are not met.

The Case for FreeBSD

Of the available OSes, the one that stands out is FreeBSD. The developers value stability over style, and security over convenience. In many ways these characteristics make it seem an unsuitable choice, but in the long run a strong, reliable foundation is more important than fancy features.

Chalk, the Open Slate GUI

The Slate needs a Graphical User Interface (GUI), one with pen-based interaction as well as a more traditional mouse-based design. It is here that the Slate design differs the most with Kay's DynaBook concept. Without a doubt this is due to the state of technology at the time (ca. 1970), and the absense of a pen for the DynaBook is not an indictment of pen-based input. His description never even mentions a mouse. It does hint at a touch-screen interface, but primarily as a way to implement an on-screen keyboard such as Apple has included in the iPad. Kay describes two input sources, a keyboard, and a digital audio recorder. The digital recorder simply records dictation, for future transcription by the author or an assistant. Voice recognition was not included.

Due to the lack of any true pen-based interface for personal computers, regardless of OS type, we are forced to build our own. This will be called Chalk. Much of the inspiration for Chalk will come from the Newton OS, the best ever pen-based GUI.

The Windowing system that seems like the best match for Open Slate is Gnome. This GUI is clean, clear, familiar looking and intuitive. All this goodness comes at a price -- it requires a lot of memory and disk storage. Acceptable performance may be achievable in a leaner package, perhaps just a good window manager like Blackbox. For something more appealing to the gaming crowd there is Enlightenment. (See for more on window managers.)

More details about the Open Slate OS implementation can be found on the wiki.


Most of Open Slate's OS requirements can be met with existing FOSS OSes. Of this group FreeBSD stands out as being a solid, although somewhat conservative choice. There is still a lot of work to be done to adapt FreeBSD to the Slate, and to complete the GUI. These will be described in a series of specific tasks described on our ideas page. More detailed descriptions of progress in these tasks will be maintained on our wiki.

Gary Dunn

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