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History of Operating Systems

Jeffrey Sherman
October 8, 1997

When Ed Roberts created the ALTAIR, he did not know that he was the inventor of a revolution. What he had invented was soon to become the craving for all teenage hackers. There was a problem though, the ALTAIR did not have a memory and could not remember basic commands.

Enter a Harvard College student and his dropout buddy from high school. They were named, Paul Allen and Bill Gates, and soon to be successful computer programmers. Many people had experience in the programming language BASIC, but Gates and Allen saw a great connection between BASIC and the ALTAIR. Their innovation, creating a BASIC interpreter for the ALTAIR, so that it would remember commands. This idea was ingenious and created this basis for Operating Systems today.

Allen called Ed Roberts and informed him of their creation. Allen was interested because this could be a big step for the ALTAIR. Its only previous use was to interpret radio frequencies and play the same song that was on the radio. Gates and Allen flew out to Arizona to meet with Roberts. During their presentation, Allen loaded paper tape into the ALTAIR and loaded BASIC into the memory of the ALTAIR by flipping some switches. Suprisingly enough, to the amazement of Gates, Allen, and Roberts, it worked.

Soon after, Gates and Allen moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. They resided in a building across the street from Roberts' company and began writing BASIC for the ALTAIR computer. This is the beginning of Microsoft, and their pursuit to dominate the Operating system industry.

With the incorporation of BASIC into the ALTAIR, the computer revolution took off. BASIC opened the doors for computer hackers/programmers and allowed them to find a purpose for this box of lights and switches. The software revolution began as well, as designers created games, word processors, and accounting programs. Unaware to most people, but this was the beginning of a new hobby and a multi-billion dollar industry.

After the integration of BASIC and the ALTAIR, computer clubs started developing and enthusiasts were everywhere. One of the most popular culminations of people took place at the West Coast Computer Faire. At this Faire, one of the most innovative conceptions was displayed, the Apple Computer. The Apple was not the most technological device to be invented, but it showed the passion of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Their device was marketed, and they only sold fifty units. This did not bring down the morale of Steve Jobs, but pushed him to design a better computer that operated on a better system. The Apple II was released in 1978 at the West Coast Computer Faire and caused a new market to be generated in the computer industry.

The next player in the game was Gary Kindall. Kindall had his Ph.D. in computers and wrote probably the most successful Operating System of his time, CP/M. He was in charge of a company called Interglactic Digital Research. Through them and the computer industry, he sold over 600,000 copies of CP/M and was looked upon as the king of the Operating System industry. CP/M was becoming the standard which to measure up.

This is the point where the Operating System industry makes a huge turn in the direction of Bill Gates. International Business Machines has always been looked up to as the standard of business equipment. They were falling behind in the race of the Personal Computer industry and were looking to catch up. IBM decided that they would market a computer under their name, that would be respected all over the nation, but there was one tiny problem. They did not have an Operating system to distinguish them from the rest. So IBM did their research and came up with two names, Gary Kindall and Bill Gates.

IBM flew to Seattle to speak with Gates and his staff at Microsoft. They were looking for a package deal from Microsoft that would include a programming language, like BASIC, along with an Operating System, similar to CP/M. IBM must have researched the wrong company because Microsoft thus far had not created an Operating System. Gates did not want to lose the deal, so he recommended their other prospect, Gary Kindall.

When Gates spoke with Kindall over the telephone, Kindall had plans, but recommended that IBM spoke with his wife. Once IBM arrived at the Kindall residence, Dorothy Kindall, Gary's wife, greeted them. IBM presented their nondisclosure document that stating that she would not disclose any information from the meeting to Ms. Kindall. She did not want to sign it, so she called her lawyers and got in a legal battle.

IBM, fed up with the situation, went back to Microsoft. Microsoft, realizing that this is a chance of a lifetime, acted on instinct and contacted a man by the name of Tim Patterson. Patterson worked for a company titled Seattle Computer Products where he had constructed an Operating System similar to that of CP/M. Microsoft negotiated a deal with IBM and told them not to worry about Patterson.

Patterson's Operating System, QDOS as he called it, was not solely his. He worked for Seattle Computer Products, so they owned the rights to QDOS. Microsoft decided to purchase the rights to QDOS for $50,000 and change the name of it to PCDOS 1.0. On August 12, 1981, IBM launched the release of their first personal computer the ACORN. It had incorporated the Operating System from Microsoft along with the engineering from IBM. Success was in the eyes of both companies and they saw that the future was bright and in their grasp.

Before all of this had taken place, Steve Jobs was looking for a way to better his Apple II. In December of 1979, he was invited to partake in a tour of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Xerox PARC was technologically advanced for their time and had devices that were unheard of. During his tour, he was shown three contraptions: Ethernet, laser printers, and the one that impressed Jobs the most, the graphical user interface. Immediately Jobs saw this as the future of the Operating System. He knew that this would be the ideal Operating System because there would not be any commands to learn, instead you "point and click."

Jobs took this idea back to his developers and described what he wanted to incorporate into his new computer. Apple went to work on LISA, which was going to be the first marketable computer with a graphical user interface (GUI). Lisa was the first interface that allowed multitasking, the ability to copy and paste objects, and view a page white screen when typing. This was going to be the future of Operating Systems and Jobs was very pleased with himself. This system became more complex, but at the same time, the price was heading through the ceiling. One of Jobs' employees had a solution to the problem, create a computer that costs around $600 and name it the Macintosh, a variety of apple. Jobs' saw the future in this, scrapped the Lisa, and worked on the Macintosh.

Once the Macintosh was completed in 1984, Steve Jobs presented it formally at a press conference. At the conference was one of his main rivals, Bill Gates. Gates was fascinated by the GUI and decided that this is what he wanted for the future of Microsoft Operating Systems.

IBM wanted to obtain the market for Operating Systems and their only option for success would be to dispose of Microsoft. Their attempt to do this was OS/2. This was a gigantic step for IBM, but their one problem was they wanted Microsoft to write the code. They were asking Microsoft to write the code for a program that would take over the Operating System business for PC's. Microsoft thought that OS/2 was a decent Operating System, but Gates saw the future in something similar to the Operating System of the Macintosh.

Gates' idea was something he called Windows. Windows was an Operating System that would have a GUI, but it would sit on top of DOS. Inside Windows, there would be a "point and click" atmosphere, but you would also have the ability to go to DOS for other commands. It was not as good as the Macintosh Operating System, but it still used the DOS interface. The advantage of Windows would be that you could have more than one "window" open at once and they would lie on top of each other.

Microsoft off ered their idea of Windows to IBM. IBM did not support it and was going full steam ahead with OS/2. Therefore, Gates probably made the largest decision of his life. Microsoft decided to no longer look for support from IBM. They were an independent company and were in the Operating System business for themselves.

Windows 1.0 was released as well as OS/2. OS/2 was designed to undermine clone Operating Systems. IBM wanted to control the Operating System business and this was their attempt. OS/2 was not very popular, but neither was Windows. Apple saw Windows and thought that it was a clone of their Macintosh Operating System, so they filed a legal suit against Microsoft. After years of battling in court, the court favored Microsoft and their publicity soared.

Microsoft kept spending money on development and research and finally in 1990 they released Windows 3.0. This was the big step in Operating Systems. Finally, a graphical user interface was easy to use along with the availability of many applications that ran on it. This was the step that put Macintosh's Operating System under. In the first year alone, Windows 3.0 sold 30 million copies, more than any other Operating System. Nevertheless, Gates was not finished, he knew that if he did not stay ahead of the competition, Microsoft would be outdated just like had happened to Apple. So Gates continued spending money on research and hired more workers until they had his ideal system.

On August 24, 1995, Microsoft released what Bill Gates called the industry standard, Windows 95. Windows 95 is a graphical user interface that does not sit on top of DOS, but runs its own DOS. It is a true multi-tasking environment and allows the user to have multiple windows open at once. Microsoft spent $300 million on the campaign promoting Windows 95. This was the largest campaign for the computer industry and only fit that it was ran by Bill Gates.

Windows 95 is the computing standard for Operating Systems now, but what will the future hold. Will Microsoft still be the dominating force in the Operating System industry? On the other hand, will some company unbeknownst to us become the next overnight success? Microsoft is looking to stay the dominating force. They are developing their next system called Windows 98, which is already on their third Beta stage. It has a tentative release date sometime in the second quarter of 1998.

I look forward to seeing the future of Operating Systems. Analysts tend to think that the future will be three-dimensional environments. Instead of using a mouse, you touch the screen and are delivered to where you want to go. The technology is there; it just takes the ingenuity to create the product. We will have to wait and see what the future holds for us in the market of Operating Systems and Personal Computers.