History of the PC Part 6
Microchips and OS Dips: A brief history of the operating system
Author’s note: After fielding several life-threatening phone calls soon after the last installment of the History of the PC, which for those who missed it expressed my admiration for the Macintosh platform, I decided to come out of hiding and renounce my devotion to Apple and buy a Dell computer with Windows XP — not!
A computer operating system, or OS, is to a computer as an engine is to a car—you don’t need to know how it works to use it.
An OS is a highly complicated gestalt of code residing in your computer that acts like a traffic cop between the microprocessor, such as the Pentium, Athalon or Motorola chips found in most CPUs, and the software applications, such as graphics or word processing programs.
In simplistic terms, the OS receives code commands from programs and translates them into machine language used by the microprocessor, which in turn directs hardware components. It also has the final say in how everything behaves and looks visually on screen.
Like many of the great inventions of the world there was no single person or event that signaled the emergence of the OS, but most computer historians and hackers would agree the Unix operating system was the first to bring together many of the elements that are found in the modern OS.
Unix was born in the research laboratories of Bell Telephone in 1969, the brainchild of Bell research team members Kenneth Thompson and Dennis Richie. Thompson would go on to develop the B programming Language and Richie was the author of the C Language. The name Unix was a play on the Multics system that Bell had cancelled due to budgetary and implementation considerations.
After more than three decades of use, Unix is still regarded as one of the most powerful, versatile and stable computer operating systems in the world. It is the basis of the open source Linux OS and is also at the heart of Apple computer’s OS X, as well as numerous iterations found within industrial computers.
But what about the Windows operating system? Technically, Windows is not an OS but is an “operating environment” as touted on the package of its first release in November of 1985. Behind Windows — which is really a shell, or command interpreter— is MS-DOS.
However, the history of the OS might have played out differently if Gary Kildall’s Digital Research and his OS known as CP/M had not fallen out of favor with IBM. The Big Blue was looking for someone to create an OS for its XT series of personal microcomputers. CP/M, developed in the mid ‘70s, was the first standardized OS created for the microcomputer. An upstart company out of Redland, Washington by the name of Microsoft was awarded the contract for the IBM PC instead and MS-DOS was on its way into computing history.
Today operating systems are not limited to desktop computers. They are found in automobiles, appliances, cell phones and the ubiquitous PDAs, or personal digital assistants.
Powerful operating systems also direct the world wide web and despite the conflicts between the leading OS proprietors, integration and compatibility with the Internet is fueling a digital revolution that will eventually foster a new era in technology.
In the next installment of PC History we’ll take a look at the origin of the Internet and how it grew from a military communications network to a world wide revolution.