10 operating systems the world left behind

AmigaOS, CP/M, OS/2, DOS -- which OS do you miss the most?
  • (Computerworld)
  • — 03 April, 2009 09:02
BeOS, a multithreaded, media-friendly operating system, could run multiple videos without a stutter or crash on its original BeBox hardware and on the PowerPC and Pentium platforms. Shown here: two views of the BeOS 5 Personal Edition desktop.

BeOS, a multithreaded, media-friendly operating system, could run multiple videos without a stutter or crash on its original BeBox hardware and on the PowerPC and Pentium platforms. Shown here: two views of the BeOS 5 Personal Edition desktop.

  • BeOS, a multithreaded, media-friendly operating system, could run multiple videos without a stutter or crash on its original BeBox hardware and on the PowerPC and Pentium platforms. Shown here: two views of the BeOS 5 Personal Edition desktop.
  •  An original IBM PC 5150 running PC-DOS Version 1.10. Inset: MS-DOS 4.01 on a 286-based NCR Personal Computer
  • The Mac OS "classic" operating system, introduced in 1984, powered Macs for 16 years and spawned a rash of imitators. For many years it was known simply as "the System." Shown here, from top to bottom: System 1.1, System 4.2 and System 7.0.
  • CP/M-86 Version 1.0 running on an original IBM PC 5150 (top left and right); CP/M 2.2 on an Osborne 1 (bottom left); CP/M 2.2G on a Kaypro 10 (bottom right).
  • From top to bottom: Amiga Workbench 1.2, 2.0 and 3.9, which ran on Motorola processors, and AmigaOS 4.0, which runs on the PowerPC.
  • Windows 95 was a turning point in the world of Windows, greatly improving the operating system's stability. Windows 95 also marked the debut of both the Start menu and the taskbar
  • OK, the X Window System isn't actually an OS; it's a graphical interface. It's not really gone, either -- while the world may have forgotten about it, X is still alive and well beneath the surface all the free Unix and Linux releases.
  • Born of a partnership between IBM and Microsoft, OS/2 quietly provided computing power for the banking and insurance industries throughout the '90s, but it failed to capture the interest of consumer software developers. Shown here: OS/2 2.1 (top) and two views of OS 2 Warp 4.
  • GEOS, originally a Mac-like operating system for eight-bit Commodore computers, was later ported over to the PC platform as GeoWorks Ensemble, which ran on top of DOS. Shown here stacked: GEOS 1.2 for the Commodore 64C (top); GEOS 2.0 for the Commodore 128 (middle); GeoWorks Ensemble 1.2 (bottom).

NeXT hardware -- the original NeXT Computer, a.k.a. "the Cube," and its younger brother the NeXTstation -- was black, sleek and beautiful. The machines' gray-scale displays were so subtle and clear that we could get up close and stare at them without hurting our eyes.

And the operating system, called NeXTStep, was frankly exciting. Its graphical interface was built around Display PostScript, so it was sharp and scalable. Underneath, it was built on a solid structure of Unix, including a Mach kernel and BSD code. And for the developers, it had an object-oriented application layer and tool kit. This made it much easier to code for than other platforms.

NeXT hardware didn't take off as meteorically as Jobs had hoped, but it did find a place in higher education and academia. In fact, it was a favorite at a Swiss research facility called CERN, where an English researcher named Tim Berners-Lee used NeXT products to develop a little project of his called the World Wide Web. NeXTStep has earned its place in the stars on the strength of that alone.

NeXT's sluggish hardware sales meant that applications developed for this cool platform had fewer computers to run on. So the company focused its attention on developing a cross-platform operating system. This is how NeXTStep was reborn for the ages.

In collaboration with Sun, NeXT turned its NeXT-branded operating system into OpenStep, which could run on Sun Solaris systems and other hardware. OpenStep's spec was made public in 1994; this development became the linchpin of a 1996 deal that brought Steve Jobs back to Apple. OpenStep was the model for Apple's impressive new operating system, when the lurching old Mac OS classic gave way to Mac OS X.

And when folks at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center wanted to port their NeXT applications to another hardware platform, NeXTStep was re-reborn as GNUstep. Instead of rewriting the applications, they rewrote the NeXTStep object layer, which they laid on top of Unix code and glued together with X Window. Presto! A more open OpenStep than OpenStep.

Whatever will be will BeOS

In 1991, when Apple released its PowerPC reference platform so hardware vendors could make Mac clones, one company had another idea. Be Inc. decided to port its own operating system, BeOS, to the Mac platform.

Perhaps Be was anticipating that Apple would never quite deliver on the promise of Copland, its Holy Grail of a next-gen operating system, and that it might want to buy Be's off-the-shelf alternative instead. Perhaps Be was just trying to find a market for the operating system it had designed for a failing product line. Whatever the company's motives, BeOS became one of personal computing's favorite near-miss stories.

In 1990, an ex-Apple exec, Jean-Louis Gassée, founded Be Inc. to develop a new computing platform starring BeOS and a machine called the BeBox. But the AT&T Hobbit processors at the core of the BeBox were discontinued, so Be had to redevelop the platform to run on PowerPC processors.

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Matt Lake

Computerworld
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