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A Brief History of Operating Systems Through Time

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF OPERATING SYSTEMS THROUGH TIME
(Part 1)
by Cameron Kaiser

Contrary to popular belief, God did not create the operating system
in six days. If He had, it would have been much better than the
ones we have now. Nonetheless, we got 'em, so we'd better learn 'em.
While some operating systems, like the love-hate Unix, have been
around since the early days of digital computing (read 1960's),
most have appeared in the late 70's to the present time, varying
from powerful multiuser OS's to little OS's that ran on 8 bit
computers in under 64K of memory. This is just the briefest portion
of operating systems, from then until now.

To establish a point of reference, all computers must have an OS.
The OS controls input and output; makes reasonable (questionable in
some) effort to control peripherals; and in short acts as the
interface between you the user, the software, and the hardware.
Early on, OSes were individualized. Since computers were a rarity,
the question of standardization was ignored, since there were so
few computers to be standardized, and consequently the OSes were
tied to the capabilities and purposes of each system. Not until the
age of microcomputers, somewhere near the late 70's, do we begin to
see any coherent pattern in the chaos. This is where our story
begins, with:

8-BIT OPERATING SYSTEMS

The first primary microcomputers on the block were the Commodore
PET, the Tandy, and the Apple II. (There IS in fact an Apple I, but
only 200 of them were ever manufactured. One of them hangs in
Apple's offices with the label "Our Founder".) Perhaps it would be
a good idea to look at how these respective companies fared in the
OS world.
        Tandy is one of the great could-have-beens in the computer
world. Their electronics chain, Radio Shack, is known worldwide.
Their appliance clones and lines make huge profits. Yet Tandy never
managed to crack the microcomputer world to any great degree because
their machines were so badly underpowered. Tandy's first foray was
the TRS-80 in its various incarnations. The TRS, when first
introduced, was a hot seller because of (at that time) its powerful
operating system and the increasing number of software applications
for it. Where the TRS-80 fell flat was failing to keep state of the
art: many new computers introduced enhanced video, or easier to use
operating systems; the TRS kept its 80-column b&w (and damn hard to
read) screen and its cryptic TRS-DOS, which rapidly gained the
moniker Trash-DOS. Tandy's next attempt was the CoCo line, going
through the CoCo 1 to the CoCo 3. The CoCo 3 actually was a fairly
good computer, with 128K, reasonable graphics and sound, complete
downward compatibility with others in its line and fair support
with Tandy. However, the CoCo was rapidly eclipsed by its primary
competition, the Commodore 64 (which we'll see later) and when
Tandy dropped it the CoCo faded away. Tandy now spends its time
making underpowered PC clones.
        The Apple II series, until officially discontinued, was one
of the bigger success stories in the 8-bit market. Used all over in
American school systems, and frequent in American households, the
Apple II, going from the plain-vanilla version to the popular Apple
IIe/c, was a staple in its class. The Apple has several OS's: Integer
BASIC, which was a throwback to the old 48K Apple II; DOS 3.3,
which was the most common of the DOSes used on the Apple; and the
sophisticated but irksome ProDOS, which was Apple's last shot.
Apple had the strength of a huge number of users and its massive
software library, which encompassed cheesy games to powerful
applications like AppleWorks, but the weaknesses of poor graphics,
dumb peripherals (meaning they did not manage themselves, but had
to depend on the host computer, a very poor arrangement), no sound
above beeps at various frequencies, and above all a nasty price
tag. Apple made an attempt at recapturing the market with the
beautiful but impractical Apple IIgs, which had some takers in the
school systems, but with the advent of the Macintosh Apple phased
out the II line. An Apple III was also manufactured, but it was not
compatible with its more successful progenitors and was a miserable
failure. The Apple II series also inspired a number of clones: the
Franklin Ace and the Laser 128 series, which incorporated a number
of useful gadgets, like mice, numeric keypads, etc. that Apple
normally bled people for. After these became increasingly popular,
Apple eventually sued them but it was not a big deal since Laser
went to making PC clones and Franklin to its line of pocket
dictionaries and encyclopedias.
        However, these two behemoths pale in comparison to what
for a time was the big boy on the block: Commodore Business
Machines. When Commodore first introduced the PET, it was fairly
popular, but not as much as when it went into its color 8-bit
line, with the VIC-20, the 64 (which even as late as 1991 was still
selling at the rate of 6-7 million units worldwide), and the 64's
bigger brother, the 128. The contemporary Commodore OS (read: 64)
was based around its version of BASIC. All commands to peripherals,
which were "smart" (having their own memory, processor and
handlers), were done through BASIC; the computer started up in
BASIC; and BASIC was built into ROM. The Commodore 64 wowed the world
as a wonderbox when it first arrived in 1984, with the then
extraordinary 16-color graphics, 3-voice sound, and bankable memory
based around the efficient MOS 6500 series (specifically, the 6510).
(Believe it or not, a 16-bit variant of the 6510, the 65816,
powers the Super Nintendo.) Since the BASIC did not have the custom
commands to manipulate many of the advanced features the 64 had, a
number of add-ons appeared: fastloaders to improve (sometimes to
massive ratios) the speed of the miserable 1541 disk drives;
BASIC extensions of all sorts, from the pitiful Simon's Basic to
bigger development systems like Epyx Programmer's Toolkit; and
hardware enhancements, such as RAM expansions, high-speed RS232
boxes and interfaces to non-Commodore printers. Another key was the
GEOS operating system, made by Berkeley Softworks (now GeoWorks).
Although it was slow, clunky, crash-prone and belligerent, it has
developed a loyal following because it presents a powerful
80-column Mac-like GUI on the 64. Huge amounts of software exist
for it, from games to powerful business programs. The 64 can even
behave like a PC or Unix box: programs like CS-DOS and the
forthcoming Demon/UX convert the 64 into smaller versions of their
bigger competitors. The 64, while officially put to rest somewhere
back in the early 1990's, finally and abruptly got the boot when
CBM declared bankruptcy last year, but millions are still in use.
The Commodore 128, its bigger and better cousin, did everything the
64 did, including CP/M (discussed later), 80 column video, its own
version of GEOS, and had all the BASIC commands necessary to take
advantage of its capabilities. While not as big a seller as the 64,
it has developed a big following in its own right. Commodore's
other 8-bits, including the Plus/4 and the 16, were disasters
because they were not compatible with the 64, and thus never hit
the market with any great interest. Commodore also developed the
Amiga series, which will be seen later on in the 16-bits.
        Other 8-bit systems of note:
        Texas Instruments' TI/99 series were another of the big
should-have-been-but-wasn'ts. Burdened by total incompatibility
with anything else, suffering terrible graphics and sound, and a
non-standard BASIC, the TI/99's developed a small following that
was quickly alienated when TI hastily cut their losses and dropped
the line. TI now makes calculators, which it used to do and should
have stuck with, and also a very good line of laptops, leaving a
discouraged following behind.
        Another computer that might have hit it big was the
Sinclair, a fairly well endowed system that would have hit it big
in Europe were it not for the spectre of the Commodore 64, which in
fact doomed many potential competitors in Europe during the early
1980's. The Sinclair's reasonable graphics capabilities and
friendlier style of usage were eventually eclipsed by CBM UK, along
with the BBC's Acorn, which should never have got out the door.
        Not to be outdone, Atari was probably the first computer in
your home, although you might not have recognized it as such. When
Nolan Bushnell released his wildly popular Pong, this primitive
dedicated system wormed its way into the hearts and habits of happy
Americans. The 2600, 5200 and 7800 video game series made addicts
out of many a kid (including me). And, for a time, Atari did at
least as well as its competitors with its hundred line: the 400,
600, 800 and 1200 series computers. Carrying fair graphics, good
sound, a reasonably efficient DOS and a good number of
applications, the Ataris did well until their faults started
bubbling to the surface. By not adhering to the Microsoft BASIC
standard (e.g. Commodore 64, Apple II), Atari seriously shot
themselves in the foot, and its graphics and sound capabilities
were overshadowed by the 64's. In addition, Atari just could not
crack the home market (Commodore's zone), nor the school market
(Apple's department). Its XL line (600XL, etc.) was also
problematic in that it was almost, but not quite, compatible with
its older brothers, requiring a Translator disk that did not quite
fix the problem for some programs. Atari released a XE line, which
was just a repackage of the 1200's, and its ST line, a 16 bit
system which will be seen later. When Atari was sold to Warner
Communications, it eventually faded away. However, its video game
division, Atari Games, is still out there sucking up your quarters.

8-BIT MULTI-PLATFORM OPERATING SYSTEMS

All the previous systems were localized to one computer, and often
hardcoded into memory. Here are those operating systems that
managed to make the jump from single-system to multi-system.
        GEOS, which was previously mentioned in reference to the
Commodore 64, also had an incarnation for the Apple II, which was
done in by Quark Catalyst. Catalyst was sponsored by Apple itself,
which was probably the reason for Apple GEOS's demise, even though
Catalyst was even clunkier than GEOS was. GEOS was also released
for the MS-DOS line, since it would run on older systems scorned by
Windows, but PC-GEOS, as phenomenally powerful as it is, was
eventually run down into a footnote in the PC GUI wars.
        The MSX standard was another multisystem standard that was
supposed to be the Japanese invasion during the mid 80's. Computers
like the Tomy Tutor (the what? well, I have one of them ;-), the
Yamaha XS, and a number of other systems adhering to this standard
were doomed by none other than the 64, which in a fit of marketing
expertise or dumb luck was selling at its peak when the MSX line
was introduced.
        OS9 was an operating system that was one of the few, if not
the only, multitasking, multithreading, and, if you're lucky,
multi-user operating systems extant for an 8-bit system. Running in
some versions for 6809 based systems, like CoCos, where it has
attracted a fierce fan club, for 68000 systems like Atari STs, and
even for the Apple II, OS9's fault was being branded a CoCo system
only (which it was primarily) and attracting a bad rep. In
addition, applications were not cross compatible. OS9 nowadays runs
on almost all of the TRS-80 line that is still in use, and on the
occasional ST (mostly in Europe).
        The big mama of the multi-platform 8-bit OSes was CP/M,
however, which nearly replaced MS-DOS as the default OS for the PC
were it not for an upstart software company from Redmond,
Washington that did a better PR job (guess who?). Developed by Gary
Kildall's Digital Research in the mid 1970's, CP/M was the first
standardized OS ever created for microcomputers. CP/M had a
standard set of commands, (eventually) a standardized DOS, and even
standardized system utilities from one implementation to another.
In its heyday, CP/M was supported by companies as diverse as
Kaypro, Cromemco and even Commodore, which could emulate it in
software in the 64 and could be a full-on CP/M box on the 128.
Disks between these systems (with the exception of the 64) were
even cross-platform readable, and because CP/M ran on the 8088 and
Z-80 processor series, the software would run exactly the same on
all of the systems. CP/M even had versions for other processors,
including CP/M-86, and other computers, such as the Apple II. With
all this going for it, CP/M ought to have succeeded, but was beaten
to the punch when it annoyed IBM, who was looking for someone to
create the operating system for its new XT series, and gave the
contract to Microsoft instead. The rest is history. Digital
Research made an abortive attempt to return to the market with its
GEM graphical system (which DID make a big hit on the ST, however),
and now markets DR-DOS, a pleasant alternative to MS-DOS, albeit
uncommon.

Tune in next time for the 16-bit systems when we return.

Cameron Kaiser, a second-year linguistics student, has a 486 but
loves his Commodore 128, which he still has and even typed part of
this on.