A History of Operating Systems
Software that lets you tell your computer what to do. Below is a short article outlining the choices of software long before almost everyone had an iPhone:
There are two kinds of software: application software and operating system software. Applications, which are individually purchased packages that serve a specific function such as word processing or game playing, get all the glory. But it’s really the operating system (OS) that keeps everything together. Your OS sits quietly in the background, telling your computer how to handle programs and files. If you’ve used a computer at all, you’ve used an operating system of some kind.
There are only a few operating systems available to the average user. For PCs, there are three: MS-DOS (which can work with a program called “Windows”), OS/2, and Microsoft Windows 95, scheduled for release in August 1995. For Macs, there is only one: Macintosh Operating System. The selection is limited because software companies have to design their applications specifically to work with a particular operating system. That’s why you see applications listed as Windows-, Dos-, or Macintosh-compatible. If software companies had to write applications for a zillion different operating systems, they wouldn’t have any time to design new and different applications.
So which operating system is the best one for you? The good news is that you don’t have to make that decision if you don’t want to: Operating systems usually come with computers when you buy them. If you bought a PC today, it would certainly come with DOS and, chances are, the manufacturer would throw Windows in, too.
All Macs come with MAC OS. Nonetheless, choices are proliferating. Operating systems come in versions Macintosh System 7.1, and most recently 7.5, for instance, will run all the same programs, but they offer slightly different features. Likewise, PC users can choose between different versions of Microsoft’s offerings or opt instead for OS/2. Each OS has its strengths and weaknesses, some have a lot of neat features, but are hard to navigate, while others are just the opposite. An OS may promise to integrate everything from faxing to e-mailing to multimedia from one menu, but if there aren’t many applications that work with it, it’s of little use.
Here’s what the major systems have to offer:
All IBM clones use the operating system MS-DOS, which stands for Microsoft Disk Operating System. The irony, of course, is that MS-DOS – usually just called DOS – is sold by Microsoft, not IBM. Microsoft founder and president Bill Gates designed it for IBM as an undergraduate student at Harvard, shortly before he dropped out. IBM let him keep the licensing rights, and the rest is history.
DOS’s way of interacting with you – its “interface” – is a bit inscrutable. When you turn on a PC running DOS, you will see a black screen and something that looks like that: C:\>. This weird-looking symbol, called a “C-prompt,” is DOS’s way of telling you that it is ready for you to tell it what to do: Run your word processing program, double your hard disk space, check for viruses – whatever. In DOS you have to type DOS commands if you want the computer to do anything. If you type “help” at the C-prompt, DOS will give you a complete list of commands and explanation of each.
Few people want to go through the trouble of learning DOS commands to use their PCs. That’s why, in the middle 1980s, Microsoft came out with Microsoft Windows. Windows is pretty and user-friendly. Instead of typing out commands at the C-prompt, you tell Windows what to do by clicking on an icon (a thumb-nail sized picture that represents an application or other function) with a mouse or other pointing device. But Windows is not an OS; it’s just a prettier interface, a GUI (pronounced Gooey), or Graphical User Interface (it’s called that because it has graphics). Windows runs “on-top” of DOS, masking its ugly duckling interface.
Today, most people who use PCs run Windows on top of MS-DOS. Windows is easier to use and nicer to look at than DOS. And, unlike DOS, Windows lets you run several applications at once, a feature called “multi-tasking”. Finally, there are more neat applications designed for the Windows interface than for DOS’s.
Not long after the debut of Windows, IBM (with some help of Windows) decided to launch its own OS, one that would combine the workhorse power of DOS and the good looks of Windows. They called it OS/2 (for Operating System 2). Although OS/2 has, by most reports, lived up to its promise, it hasn’t had much success in the consumer marketplace. The success of Windows has overshadowed it: there just aren’t enough applications written for OS/2 to make it truly viable. But now, IBM has re-dressed OS/2, scaled it down in price and power, added an automatic online connection, and called it something else: Warp. Since it’s still new, and there are relatively few applications written for it, the verdict is still out on Warp.
This is where things start getting a bit complicated. The Windows that we were talking about before is a GUI than runs on top of DOS. Microsoft has, however, developed a kind of Windows that is a bona fide OS, called Windows 95. For PC users Windows 95 is a coup. It has a more user-friendly interface. It runs and manages applications faster and more efficiently, and it automatically figures out which peripherals you have attached to your computer. But the best part is that it connects you online from the moment you install it. The problem is that even though Microsoft says you don’t, you really need at least a 486-based machine with 8 MB of RAM to run Windows 95.
The Macintosh Operating revolutionized the face of computers. It was the first OS GUI. That’s why, when the Mac debuted in the mid-80s, it practically caused riots. Finally, an operating system that was easy – even fun – to use. Based on icons instead of command lines, mice instead of keyboards, Mac OS made computing “user-friendly”, a feature for which people were willing to pay quite a bit, even if it meant skimping on the processing power offered by PCs. Mac OS was so popular, in fact, that PCs tried to imitate it with Windows. For a while, the joke in the computer industry was that IBM really stood for “I wanna Be a Mac”.
Mac Operating System has been through several incarnations – the latest is called System 7 – which, like Windows 95, has networking power, but it has always been designed to work with Macintosh computers and software only. The advantage of this design is what’s called “plug and play”. Since everything is controlled by one company, you never have to worry about whether or not different software or hardware will work with your Mac. It just does. But now that nearly everyone is computer-literate, Macs don’t attract the way they used to. Sure, people still want their computers to be easy to use, people want more power and more applications.
So, the tables have turned. Macs now want to be IBMs. In partnership with IBM, Macintosh is not only beginning to license Mac-OS to clone manufacturers, but it’s also designing a totally new operating system (code-named Copland), which – not surprisingly – will be designed like OS2/Warp and Windows 95.
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Screenshot of a Disk Operating System of those times long gone…
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