We use computers every single day, from tablets, smartphones, desktop PCs and laptops but we’ve in many ways become almost oblivious to how they work. The user interfaces used across the various operating systems out there have become intuitive and almost anonymous to us. The majority of people watching this video will probably be, like myself of a certain age group where we have grown up to expect certain conventions and behaviors from the operating systems we use.
When you look at your Windows PC, Your Mac or Linux Machine and indeed your Android or iOS device, you are looking at the collective sum total of years of software and hardware progress and development to reach the current look and feel you see before you. So many of the features we take for granted were one day very alien concepts to those early computing pioneers. The modern OS had to come from somewhere, and in this blog, I’m going to talk about just how history gave us the operating systems we use today.
This is the history of operating systems
In the beginning computers were simply mainframes that were without an operating system and relied on punch card input as well as magnetic or paper tapes. The earliest stored-program computer was developed at the Victoria University of Manchester in June of 1948. It was called the Manchester Automatic Digital Machine.
In the 1960s IBM were the leading computer hardware vendor and developed the OS/360, but it wasn’t until later in that decade that the rise of Unix would change everything. AT&T Bell Laboratories created the system for their old, PDP-7 minicomputer, by today’s standards there was nothing mini about it but back then, a computer that didn’t take up a whole room was considered small. It cost $72,000 at the time and used Flip-Chip technology and supported a keyboard, printer, paper-tape and dual transport DECtape drives. By todays standards it had a memory capacity of just 9KB. Back then however, memory was measured in words, of which it could support just 4 thousand.
Unix proved popular because it was easy to obtain, easily modified and completely free. The 1970s would bring us 8-bit processors including the Intel 8080 but it wasn’t until the 1980s that we started to see a giant leap in computing development. This was because it became financially viable to produce smaller computers for the home such as the Commodore 64, Apple II series and the Atari 8-bit machine. Also, who could forget the ZX Spectrum.
In 1981 Xerox introduced the Star Office Information system, which would ultimately prove revolutionary because it gave Apple the idea to develop their own GUI (Graphical user interface) based OS along with a point and click mouse input. This was the first time that anyone had ever seen icons being used to represent applications and files and folders on a computer. We take this for granted, but back then this was high brow stuff and you can clearly see where modern operating systems took their influences. It gave us terms like the desktop, properties settings but also delete, copy and move functions. To this day, we’re still using the majority of these major break throughs pioneered by Xerox. Although under the hood operating systems are radically more advanced, many of the basic user input controls and general functions haven’t changed all that much.
Of course at this time, Microsoft DOS and PC DOS sold on IBM computers was the market leader and would remain relatively intact beneath Windows 95, 98 and Millennium as a backward compatibility mode for older software applications. It consumed very little installation space and was both flexible and far more reliable than Windows at that time. But of course, it reached its demise in 2000 when development stopped and was shelved following the introduction of Windows 2000 and Windows XP that followed it. Backing things up a little bit, it was Apple’s Lisa office system in 1983 that gave us the first commercially viable GUI-based OS. It bears a striking resemblance to Xerox’s interpretation. However, Lisa was too expensive for the average consumer and it was largely a failure. Later Apple would develop System 1.0 in 1984 for the original Macintosh and then everything changed. Even today you can see that this first Mac system has some striking similarities to what we use today. The Apple logo in the top right hand corner, the general layout of the folders, the task bar the top and the trash can in the bottom right hand corner. Microsoft would copy Apple in developing Windows and soon they would produce Windows 95, the most popular OS of the 1990s. When you look at both operating systems from Microsoft and Apple, over the years, although they’ve changed dramatically, they have retained the main design elements and UI conventions we still use today. But operating systems have evolved beyond the mouse and keyboard, with the advent of touchscreen devices and social media, operating systems have begun to go through their next major evolution. Now social networks pervade desktop environments with reminders and notifications, they’ve become far more simplified and appliance-like. Users expect them to be ever more intuitive and easier to use with all of the complexity and technology hidden away from them. We take so many of these great functions and features in our operating systems for granted and It can be all too easy to forget where all of the ingenuity and creativity came from. There’s no doubt that the operating systems we use nowadays are light years ahead of those found in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but the fundamental principles and core commitment to meet the needs of the user and recognise the importance of breaking down the barrier between the hardware and software and the human interface remains an evolving project. We can only speculate where operating systems will be in 10 or 20 years time, but one thing is for sure, wherever we’re headed, the progress we make will be built on a mountain of developmental successes and failures made by those first pioneers from the dawn of the computing age.