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Old 18-Jan-2017, 04:41 PM (16:41)   #1
lpetrich
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Default What's an operating system?

What is an operating system? It is some software that hosts all the other software that runs on a computer, allocating resources and mediating access to the hardware.

The term likely dates back to the 1960's, when the General Comprehensive Operating System was developed. It was a renaming of the General Electric Comprehensive Operating Supervisor, dating back to 1962. But OSes are older than that, of course.

The first computers had no OSes; ENIAC and some others didn't even have stored programs -- they had to be programmed by setting switches and dials, and connecting different parts with patch cables.

The first stored-program computers had no OSes. Their users had to set them up by hand, including reading in programs on punched tape or punched cards.

OS-less programming continues in the less-fancy embedded-computer devices and game consoles. How much OS does one need to run a microwave oven?

But as computers got more users, then coordinating the use of them became a problem. Back in the 1950's, an early solution was batch computing, collecting users' requests and then running them all at once. The requests had to have users' hardware selections, like which tape drives to read from and write to, so the first operating system was invented. It would read from "job control cards" in the requests to command the OS to perform setup tasks. The OS would live in the computer and handle those requests.

Later batch processing would be semi-interactive, with users submitting batch jobs to run individually instead of as a group.

In the 1960's, fully interactive computing started as "time sharing", several people using the same computer.

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The most successful solution to the problem of multiple user requests has been "preemptive multitasking". The OS makes whatever software is currently running suspend its running and then handles another request or else transfers control to some other suspended software, making it run again.

An alternative, "cooperative multitasking", depends on the software relinquishing control to let the OS decide what is next to be running.

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With more and more memory becoming available, more and more software could be run at the same time, and the problem emerged of how to keep some program from trampling all over the memory. The most successful solution as been "protected memory", giving each active program its own memory space.

Even so, memory was often very limited, and programmers often had to write "overlays" for their software, describing which parts of it could be mapped onto the same areas of memory, with different memory-sharing parts being read in as needed. Eventually, a more convenient version of overlays was invented: "virtual memory". In it, the overlaying is done completely behind the scenes by the OS.

By the 1980's, most mainframe OSes had preemptive multitasking and protected memory, though that would become common on desktop computers only in the late 1990's.
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Old 19-Jan-2017, 12:13 PM (12:13)   #2
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The first single-user computers were expensive minicomputers that appeared around 1970 or so. Affordable ones started to appear by the mid-1970's, and there was an active industry of them by the late 1970's. They usually had a very rudimentary OS, CP/M or a similar one, they were single-tasking, and they did not have any memory management. Their software used the physical memory straight, without any overlaying or virtual memory, just like the earliest computers.

Then IBM came out with its Personal Computer or PC in 1981. It was a CP/M-computer ripoff, something that its development team threw together very quickly by IBM standards. Most of its parts were non-IBM, and its OS was also non-IBM. It was a CP/M imitation called "PC-DOS", offered by a company that was then making software-development tools, Microsoft.

IBM intended its PC series to be as proprietary as other companies' computers were, but it was rather easy to throw together imitations of it. But its software was a problem. Its boot-ROM software was proprietary, but there wasn't much of it, and it was rather easy to reverse-engineer it. Its OS? Microsoft offered "MS-DOS" for it, "PC-DOS" under another name. MS's head, Bill Gates, had evidently learned some things from his corporate-lawyer father.

Cloners went after other companies' computers, and there is a famous case where Franklin Computer's computers were revealed to be ripoffs of Apple's early ones by Franklin's ones having text like "Applesoft" in its software.

But this ease of access to parts and what a Big Name IBM was in corporatedom both helped push the PC clones, and makers of proprietary systems gradually fell before the PeeCees, as I sometimes call them. Atari lasted until the late 1980's, I think, and Commodore until the early 1990's with its Amiga series. Apple is the only survivor, and it almost didn't make it out of the mid 1990's.

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In the late 1980's, Microsoft worked on IBM on OS/2, a GUIfied successor to DOS. But MS also worked on its own GUIfied OS, Windows, on the side. But when OS/2 did not work out very well, MS had an alternative ready to go: Windows 3.x. Also in the early 1990's, MS also had a high-end version of Windows for professional users, Windows NT. It had "real OS" features like preemptive multitasking and protected memory, while 3.x had cooperative multitasking and a single memory space. MS then created a sort of hybrid, Windows 95. Windows continued on this two-OS track, succeeding NT with Windows 2000, and 95 with 98 and ME, then releasing XP, its NT-successor single OS.

Also, over the late 1980's and early 1990's, MS became known for its cliff pricing of DOS and Windows preloads. It would cost a PC maker much more to load them on 99% of its PC's rather than 100% of them, so it wasn't anything legitimate like economies of scale.

But despite some litigation, the damage was done, and competitors like DR-DOS and later versions of OS/2 were effectively shut out.
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Old 19-Jan-2017, 12:48 PM (12:48)   #3
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Apple is a rather interesting story. Its Apple I started it off, but its Apple II was its first big seller. It was much like the CP/M machines of the time. Its Apple III was not very successful, but some Appleites took a look at Xerox PARC and its development of GUI software. So they decided on GUIfying the Apple IV, which they renamed the Lisa. It was very expensive and not very successful. Then its GUIfied Apple V or Macintosh in 1984. That one was more successful, even if still rather pricey.

It was successful enough to have lots of successors, and Apple eventually abandoned its Apple II line. Its successors eliminated several of the limitations of the original one, but some difficulties remained. It was hard to add preemptive multitasking and protected memory to the Macintosh OS or MacOS. So in the early 1990's, Apple tried to create a "real OS" successor, with a halfway one called Copland and a completed one to be called Gershwin. However, Copland was an embarrassing failure. It suffered extreme feature creep while not working very well. So in the mid 1990's Apple went shopping for alternatives.


Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple in 1985, and he tried to come up with "the next big thing", with a computer company that he founded and called Next. But the Next Cube did not repeat the Macintosh success, and Next tried going all-software, making a GUI layer that would fit on top of other OSes. That wasn't very successful.

Another ex-Appleite, Jean-Louis Gassee, founded Be, Inc., That company first came out with the BeBox, a much more affordable computer than the Next Cube, and then offered the BeOS as an alternative OS for Macintosh hardware.

Both NextStep, as the Next OS was called, and the BeOS were "real OSes" with preemptive multitasking and protected memory, and both had nice GUI layers that were nice to write for.


Apple commissioned a team to look at alternatives. The BeOS? JLG asked a high price as a way of thumbing his nose at Apple's failures. Sun Microsystems's OS? Windows NT? Then late in 1996, Apple acquired Next.

Steve Jobs was back in Apple, and by mid-1997, he and other Nexties had taken over Apple. Apple continued to offer its creaky old MacOS even as it updated and improved NextStep. Then in 2001, it released this new NextStep as MacOS X. It handled old-MacOS apps by running the old MacOS inside a special app for it.

I've written several apps for OSX, and I've looked at NextStep, and it's remarkable how little of the old MacOS made its way into OSX -- its programming paradigms are just like NextStep's.

Apple later phased out its old-MacOS / "MacOS Classic" support, making it have even less in common.
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Old 19-Jan-2017, 01:49 PM (13:49)   #4
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Now for Unix.

Back in the late 1960's, there was an ambitious operating-system project called Multics. It was not very successful, but in AT&T, some programmers wanted to write a small and simple OS for some of that company's computers. They named it Unix, meaning a smaller Multics, and also implying being deprived of important parts: "eunuchs".

Unix proved very successful, and since AT&T had to release its source code, lots of universities worked on it, notably the University of California at Berkeley. This availability made many companies use it as their computers' OS, notably Sun Microsystems with its professional-user workstations, high-end desktop computers.

All this development caused the Unix world to fragment, and around 1990, various Unix supporters squabbled about what features shall go into the One True Version of Unix. These "Unix wars" created an opportunity for Microsoft with Windows NT.

Among the users of Unix back then was Next, and that was carried on into OSX. So by using OSX, I'm using a Unix flavor.


Let's backtrack. In the late 1980's, a certain Andrew Tanenbaum developed a Unix flavor that he called Minix. However, he intended Minix only as a teaching OS, and he did not improve it very much. Among frustrated Minix users was a certain Linus Torvalds, then a college student in Helsinki, Finland, and in 1991, he started his own Unix-flavor OS project. He called it Freax, but someone insisted on calling it Linux, and the name stuck.

It got support from disgruntled Minix users, and Linux grew into a Big Thing. Although it has not been successful on the desktop, it has been very successful elsewhere, from smartphones to servers to supercomputers.


As to cellphones, it must be noted that they started out essentially OS-less, but the fancier recent ones have sported OSes, notably Symbian and iOS and Android. iOS is a version of OSX, and Android is built on top of Linux. So the best-selling smartphones nowadays run versions of Unix.

Likewise, game consoles have been essentially OS-less for a long time, though recent ones do have OSes in them. The Xboxes have versions of Windows, of course, and the most recent Playstations versions of a Unix flavor called BSD.
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Old 19-Jan-2017, 07:11 PM (19:11)   #5
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Very interesting stuff. I started out using MS-DOS and then Windows 3.0, which I thought was great. Then I remember the excitement when we got 3.1, which was stable. I did some bench testing on Windows 2.x, which as I recall was a black and white GUI.

Windows 3.1 had some advantages over even Windows 7 which I still miss, such as the ability to search by directory. Nowadays Windows searches the entire file structure for a term and returns tons of extraneous data to sift through manually, although it does this in a fraction of a second. And it's still occasionally helpful to remember some MS-DOS.

Edited to add: before Windows 3.1, the company where I worked used IBM mainframes exclusively, and I used VM.

Another fun fact: the first PC I used, in the late '80s, was an HP clone running MS-DOS that came with 5 volumes of user manuals and technical data. Times have changed.

Last edited by Tharmas : 19-Jan-2017 at 07:35 PM (19:35).
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Old 20-Jan-2017, 04:42 PM (16:42)   #6
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This is really interesting. But out of curiosity, why did you put this together?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tharmas View Post
Times have changed.
No joke. Some of my first memories are of my brother and myself playing what I believe was a hockey game on a Tandy 1000. Now I run Linux off of a flash drive.
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Old 20-Jan-2017, 10:00 PM (22:00)   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by homo hirsutus View Post
This is really interesting. But out of curiosity, why did you put this together?
Me? I was inspired by a certain mistake that someone here had made. I wanted to set the record straight on what an operating system is, and I ended up explaining some rather interesting history.
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Old 20-Jan-2017, 10:53 PM (22:53)   #8
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Wow. This thread is Cunningham's Law on steroids. Thanks!
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Old 22-Jan-2017, 12:46 PM (12:46)   #9
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Our first computer was a VC20 in the mid-80s, we had to program it by using Basic-language and I don't even remember what it was good for or if their was an operating system at all besides the one that interpreted Basic to Binary.

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Old 22-Jan-2017, 12:48 PM (12:48)   #10
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Quote:
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Me? I was inspired by a certain mistake that someone here had made.
Was it my mistake? Am I inspiring?
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Old 02-Feb-2017, 01:10 AM (01:10)   #11
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It was something that you had posted elsewhere here, about how you had trouble running some of my software. That was because I had written it for MacOS X (now macOS) and not Windows.
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Old 07-Feb-2017, 06:59 PM (18:59)   #12
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I am inspiring
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