By Harry McCracken | Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 1:37 am
Now this is good tech news in its purest form: After eight years of development, a new operating system called Haiku has been released in alpha form. It’s an open-source reconstruction of BeOS, the mean, lean, multimedia-savvy OS which I really liked when I reviewed it for PC World, um, eleven years ago. (If I recall correctly, I compared it with Windows 98 and an early version of Red Hat Linux.) It’s certainly a happier development than we’re accustomed to hearing about BeOS, a product which failed to become the next-generation Mac OS back in the 1990s and was then sold to Palm for a measly $11 million, whereupon it pretty much vanished except for the occasional legal aftershock.
Still, for an operating system that never succeeded in the first place, BeOS has been remarkably…successful. It’s still embedded in at least one professional audio product, is the subject of multiple news sites and blogs, and boasts an impressive array of applications. It may not have changed the world, but it was both useful and loved. And even if Haiku is a quixotic project, it gives BeOS a new lease on life.
The Haiku release got me thinking about other once-signficant OSes, and what happened to them. Herewith, some quick updates on a few major ones from the 1970s and 1980s. Remarkably enough, they haven’t been done in by disinterested owners, obsolete technology, and legal wrangling–they’re all still around in one form or another, and it’s entirely possible that some of them will outlive us all.
You could argue that Digital Research’s pioneering desktop OS lives on in spirit every time anyone boots up Windows: Microsoft’s operating system is the successor to MS-DOS, which started out as a hasty knockoff of CP/M. As for bona-fide DR CP/M? Well, it’s apparently still available in new/old-stock form from this company for fifteen bucks a copy, although I’m not sure if anyone runs it today for any reason other than nerdy nostalgia. But CP/M never really went away–it evolved into DOS PLUS, which then morphed into DR DOS, which one-time owner Caldera open-sourced as OpenDOS. Both DR DOS and OpenDOS are still with us.
I don’t think I’ve ever laid eyes on a Digital VAX minicomputer in my life, but when I was first getting into computers, they were the gold standard of industrial-strength computing, in large part due to VMS, the OS they ran. (VMS architect Dave Cutler went on to spearhead Windows NT, and is currently working on Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing platform.) VAXes VAXen were so popular that they not only survived the end of the minicomputer era, but also the merger of Digital into Compaq and of Compaq into HP–the last ones rolled off assembly lines in this decade. After multiple migrations by VMS to new platforms, HP is still selling computers that run the OS, which is now known as OpenVMS.
You think Microsoft is having trouble ridding itself of Windows XP? DOS, an OS that dates from early in the first Reagan administration, is still very much alive, quietly in use at businesses running an array of vertical and embedded applications. Microsoft supposedly killed it in 2001, but if you subscribe to its TechNet service for IT types, you can download DOS 6.0 and 6.22 to this day. (The company surely wouldn’t offer it unless there were folks out there who still needed it.) Then there’s FreeDOS, the DOS-compatible open-source OS that you can even get preinstalled on certain HP systems. Prediction: Long after there’s not a single soul left running Windows 7, there will be someone, somewhere happily using DOS.
Like many early home computers–including my beloved TRS-80–the legendary Commodore 64 was so architecturally rudimentary that its BASIC programming language more or less doubled as its operating system, sitting on top of some low-level software called KERNAL. Until recently, I would have declared KERNAL and BASIC to be officially defunct. But they’re not only still around, but causing controversy! Developer Manomio created a properly licensed C64 emulator for the iPhone, letting you put Commodore’s 27-year-old OS in your pocket. But Apple told it that having Commodore BASIC on the iPhone was too dangerous, which led Manomio to submit a version with BASIC disabled–except you could turn it on again if you knew how. That led Apple to yank the app, which remains unavailable as I write this. Commodore founder Jack Tramiel liked to compare his competition with Apple and other companies to war; I hope he’s watching this somewhere and deriving pleasure from the dust-up.
Ever have one of those dreams in which you discover that a long-deceased relative is alive and well, and you’re simultaneously happy and creeped out? That’s sort of how I feel about the current status of the Amiga operating system, of which I was a wild-eyed disciple from late 1987 until early 1991. Commodore folded more than fifteen years ago; its various assets have kept on changing hands ever since. I don’t claim to fully understand the convoluted post-Commodore history and legal status of AmigaOS, or why people are still running it in late 2009. But Wikipedia says that AmigaOS 4.1 was released last year, and that a “quick fix” (read: service pack) came out just last June. All I know for sure is that this version won’t run on my Amiga 500…and that I’ll shed a silent tear if AmigaOS ever ceases to exist.
“They make the Amiga users look sane.” That’s how my first boss in the computer magazine business cheerfully described OS/2 aficionados, back when it had failed to become the dominant next-generation OS that everyone expected it would be. I think we’re finally at the point where there’s nobody out there stubbornly running OS/2, grumbling about Windows, and insisting that the world will eventually come to see IBM’s OS for the gem that it is. (Actually, I take that back.) But OS/2 isn’t dead–it’s apparently still kicking around in some embedded systems and supported, grudgingly and for a fee, by Big Blue. And Serenity Systems’ eComStation 2.0, an authorized OS/2 variant, is still kicking–in fact, a silver version of release 2.0 came out just a couple of weeks ago.
Some of you are probably sick of hearing me wax rhapsodic over the Psion Series 5, an amazing PDA from the 1990s which would still be amazing in some respects if it were re-released today. Much of its amazingness came from EPOC, the mobile operating system which it and earlier Psions ran. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, Psion got out of the PDA business early in this century and spun off its software operations into a company called Symbian, which concentrated on OSes for cell phones. Eventually, Symbian ended up being acquired by Nokia, and its OS has gone open source and continues development. There are still glimmers of the Psion genius in Symbian-based phones such as Nokia’s N97, but overall, the OS not only failed to keep up with the times but actually lost some of the clever interface touches that made Psion’s products so wonderful. I was so emotionally attached to EPOC that it hurts to type this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that Nokia should probably put Symbian out to pasture and adopt Google Android as its primary phone OS.
I could go on–Microsoft’s MSX, which I thought never caught on in the first place, is still sort of extant–but I’ll end this here. Except to ask you this: Which other OSes of yore are worth remembering, celebrating, and maybe even using?