1. 16
  1. 5

    Sorry if this is the wrong forum for this question, but what would it take for Plan 9 to become a viable option on servers or desktops today? It seems like many people are enthusiastic about the concepts it is built on and its potential, and have been for years, yet it seems as elusive as the GNU Hurd. Technically it may still be under development, but I’ve never encountered a machine, virtually or in person, that is running Plan 9.

    Why isn’t Plan 9 more popular? Is it an organizational problem, where there is no clear leader (person, corporation, or non-profit) pushing Plan 9 forward? Are there too many competing “forks” diluting what development effort exists? Is it a lack of good documentation/tutorials helping people get started developing Plan 9? Is there some licensing issue? Is it lack of hardware support, making it impossible to run on modern hardware? (Then why not run it in a virtual machine / emulator, as Redox OS does while it’s being developed?) Is it a lack of software written for it, or lack of a killer app that makes people want to run it instead of BSD or any other niche OS? Is it a sheer lack of publicity, so that fewer people are aware of its existence than I think? Is Plan 9 actually obsolete, so that people who really look at its design give up and go do something else with their time?

    1. 12

      I think there are a few factors:

      • The developers have very strong opinions. On things like obsessive adherence to the Unix philosophy (check the source for the plan 9 coreutils), syntax highlighting, mouse use, and so on. The nature of the system seems to make a lot of those opinions much harder to disagree with than other systems. Read the mailing lists or cat-v to get an idea of what I mean. I don’t think that this is a bad thing, but it is polarising.
      • The mouse is central. This stems from above, but I think it’s an issue in itself. A lot of the people who are likely to be interested are also likely to be invested in programs such as Vim or Emacs, and telling these people that they have no choice but to use a mouse isn’t going to go down well. Also, the prevalence of laptops these days means that people are less likely to always be able to use a mouse in the efficient way that is required. Furthermore, the mouse should be three buttoned, and modern mouses rarely are, the scroll wheel not working as a suitable alternative.
      • It works best together. Plan 9 is designed as a distributed operating system, and comes into its own when used on more than just a single personal machine. The fact no one uses it makes it hard for this to be achieved - a chicken and egg situation.
      • It’s ugly. Personally I quite like the aesthetic, but it does look like it’s from the 90s, and that’s going to turn a lot of people off. The interface is spartan, and many of its programs don’t come with easy ways to change the colour schemes to what the user might prefer.
      • There isn’t a good browser. I hate that I need these as much as the next person, but unfortunately it’s the case.

      These are the main things that have stopped me from using the system, and I’ve wanted to make it my main OS on a couple of occasions. Some people have switched, but others have moved to modern systems, bringing the killer apps with them.

      That’s the situation as I’ve experienced it anyway.

      [edit - just a heads up, apologies if this sounds a bit rushed, I wrote it once and then accidentally C-w’d my tab at the last moment (damn browsers!) and my thought process was a bit scattered the second time around.]

      1. 1

        Sorry to pick out this one thing, but why won’t the scroll wheel work as a 3rd button? Can’t you just push it without scrolling?

        1. 2

          The scroll wheel does work as a 3rd button. I wouldn’t call it unsuitable, it’s just that it is less ergonomic than a real middle button.

          1. 1

            You can, but that’s not really what it’s between designed for. Maybe you do and it works for you, but I find it frustrating because it feels like a wheel, not a button. Even when I disable scrolling with it, it feels like a wheel which is broken so that’s even worse. I used to have a three button mouse and it just felt better (in that regard, it also had a ball so was worse in that regard).

        2. 9

          @twee answered in detail why Plan 9 as a whole doesn’t get much adoption. But a lot of pieces of Plan 9 have been inspirational to other more popular OSes, and as a research OS, I think that counts as success for Plan 9. Obvious examples are UTF-8, which is everywhere, and the /proc filesystem on Linux that gives “everything is just a file” access to all sorts of kernel internals. A less obvious one is the 9p file server protocol, which made a recent appearance in Windows Subsystem for Linux of all places!

          1. 4

            Drivers are a huge obstacle for every alternative OS. Even on Linux, the situation is rough.

            The ubiquity of virtualization software (and somewhat consistent virtual hardware drivers) has been a boon to alt-OS usage and popularity.

            1. 4

              Plan 9 was and still is a beautiful experiment, an example of a research OS developed coherently, with a clear vision, while having a surprisingly decent userspace. However, it’s dangerous to confuse its aesthetic beauty and conceptual simplicity with actual utility for end users. The reason for existence for operating systems is to provide a hardware abstraction layer and to run end-user applications. It turns out that it’s possible to run the world on something as bloated and messy as Linux, and even, gasp, Windows. As long as the OS does not fall apart (like Windows 98) and has drivers for its target hardware, it’s good enough. Plan 9 clearly steered too much into the “pure aesthetics” territory without being an order of magnitude improvement for end users.

              Already in mid-90s Plan 9 started to get out of touch with the mainstream OSes and it had not found a niche where it was a winner. The other comments mentioned already the archaic UI and the mouse-centric workflow that requires the middle button–it is opinionated and rather hostile to most workflows of both power and casual users. As for the organizational problems: a successful OS needs backing of at least one big corp (OpenBSD is the most successful OS that I still consider being actually community-driven).

              To be honest, I prefer Plan 9 to stay in history in its clear form, as a myth of a perfect operating system, instead of watching it becoming something like what Linux is becoming today under the pressure of needs of big enterprises.