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A Brief History of Operating Systems Through Time

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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:


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.


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.