Reimagining the Operating System

Not in the slightest monome-related, but I thought I would put this up here, as this is a rare community which straddles many different disciplines.

I was listening to a Tristan Harris podcast this morning and my mind started wandering into a world where computers were more helpful to our needs and conducive to better instincts, focus and routine.

Here’s what I came up with:

I pictured an operating system which only allows a single app to run at any time, does away with windows, file managers, toolbars and features a perpetually fuzzed-out wallpaper. The only systems app would allow the user to choose which application is scheduled during the day, either based on time or event.

For instance, I want to patch in Pure Data between 9 and 10pm every week night. Or I want to check my email for fifteen minutes when I first get home from work. This schedule I imagine would be locked in to some degree, either 24 hours in advance or some other imposed limitation, which would obviously fly in the face of impulse coding, emailing or youtubing, but I thought would be interesting to see what effects this could have.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? If not I would be interested in any or all suggestions on how I could implement something similar on a Raspberry PI or MacBook pro.



Your post made me think of MirageOS - a system where you can take your application, and compile it with the OS itself, which leads to a highly pruned and optimized executable for just the exact application mix you intend to run.

The results are fascinating: I saw a talk on MirageOS, where the slides were delivered from a MirageOS web server. The whole OS image was on a very tiny little one chip computer, powered by USB, and booted, served, and shutdown on each web request!


You could do that with Linux and a minimal window manager like IceWM or openbox. With the minimal window managers you wont have icons, menus etc so your applications can be effectively hidden.

…then you have a cron job that launches/kills the scheduled applications at the preconfigured times.

It would be an interesting experiment in self discipline. I can imagine myself using the terminal to work around the restrictions.

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Thanks for the responses so far, I will certainly do some more digging. MirageOS and IceWM sound intriguing.

I think the other motivator for this line of thinking was a conversation I was having with a colleague about the seeming unkillability of cinemas, despite the wide availability of replicating a similar experience at home. Obviously not the entire story, but I figured one of the elements that people enjoy about seeing films in a cinema context is the very lack of control, the inability to start, stop or pause the film (aside from the effort of removing yourself), and I wonder if this could be something we see implemented in other contexts in the coming years. For instance, a music application which lets you choose to play a record, but once committed would not allow any skipping or pausing.

Or on the other hand, maybe not. It is not a very positive experience when my computer occasionally hangs at the exact moment a YouTube ad is blasting out my speakers, and I lose the ability to do anything aside from put my fingers in my ears or leave the room.

Sounds very similar to Docker, or any other “cloud container”. It takes some getting used to, the idea of describing your infrastructure like it was a program, but once you go that direction it makes a lot of sense. On the server at least, I’d be very interested in trying it for a desktop.

i think i can relate to the “problems” that might have led you to such a reflection. But i would rather have a someone hitting me with a keisaku than having a computer that does not obey my inputs (i’ve left windows for that :D).

I thought would be interesting to see what effects this could have.

I enjoyed this article on “Living with a dumb phone” about moving away from iPhone / Android to a basic candy bar phone. Applying that idea to your whole computing life sounds interesting and borderline monastic. A technology book of hours. Wildly impractical, but I’d definitely try it!

Agreed that this sounds very doable with a build-your-own flavor of Linux and a highly configurable window manager. I was way on board with the xmonad school of window managers a few years ago. Most of them seem like a great jumping off point for what you’re shooting for.


I havent listened to the whole podcast but there is one trick that makes me focus a lot more on relevant stuff - shutting off the Internet connection.

That said, I remember buying my first iPhone (3G) and feeling much more focused using that compared to while using my computer. I related it to the limited resources and one-app-at-a-time constraint (although music could be played in the background when using that one app).

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Ironically I got one of those Light Phones in the initial Kickstarter, but couldn’t get the call forwarding to work because they don’t cater for my ‘ancient’ iOS 6. So… I have to upgrade my smartphone so I can use the new dumb phone. Of course I could just use it exclusively w a new number, but I actually really like texts and almost never answer phone calls (I find calls very disruptive, and I’d prefer to actively choose when to engage someone).

That said, I’m all for single-mindedness when it comes to productivity. A big part of why I’ve grown such a love of embedded computing is toward the idea of dumb devices that do only one thing really well. Thus I have to choose whether to carry a camera, or an audio recorder, or a newspaper, rather than have a crappy version of them all in one device.


I’d like to pick up the new (old) Nokia 3310 when it comes out. Just because. That Punkt phone looks great, but can’t justify that kind of cost unless it has at least two oscillators or at least a nice filter.