Monthly Archives: January 2013

A Brief History of Operating Systems

Microsoft has dominated the operating systems market for many years and still continues to hold the main market share.  According to Net Market Share, as at December 2012 Windows operating systems had an 81.55% share of the operating system market.  Further broken down, Window is running on 91.74% of desktops, whereas IOS has the largest share of the mobile and tablet operating system with 60.13%.  Windows Phone is running on 1.05% of tablets and mobiles, however, as a relative newcomer to the mobile and tablet operating system market (it was released in October 2010), it has a larger share than Kindle and is hot on the heels of Blackberry.

It was not always so.  Microsoft began developing and creating operating systems in 1981, 25 years the first widely acknowledged operating system was created.  Recent popularity of mobile computing and the decline in sales of laptops and PC’s may herald the end of Microsoft’s dominance.  This article is intended as a brief outline of operating system technology and popularity since the 1950’s to the present day.  For a detailed list of operating systems since the 1950’s please see here.

The history of operating systems is not just about Microsoft or Apple.  Operating systems have existed since the 1950’s and have undergone many changes and developments to reach the stage we are at today.  The evolution in operating systems is closely tied to the history and development of the computer.  As computers moved from mainframes to personal computers, the requirements needed of an operating system also changed.

Operating systems of the 1950’s

The General Motors and North American Aviation Input Output (GM-NAA I/O) can be considered to be the first operating system.   Designed for the IBM 704 computer in 1956 by Robert L. Patrick of General Motors Research and Owen Mock of North American Aviation, the GM-NAA I/O was able to automatically execute a new program once the previous one had finished (known as a single stream batch processing system).  The operating system itself consisted of shared routines to the programs that offered access to the input/output devices.   The system was popular enough to be used in about forty installations of the IBM 704.

IBM 704

IBM 704 and GM-NAA I/O

The GM-NAA I/O is typical of operating systems in the 1950s, which were really batch processing systems.  They were bespoke applications created for the specific needs of a customer and installations would vary from site to site even when they were created by the same manufacturer.  There were no “out of the box” solutions.

Operating systems of the 1960’s

This changed when IBM had a vision of a single operating system, the OS/360 which would run on their new System 360 machines.  Instead of companies developing individual operating systems depending on what their specific needs were, owners of the system 360 would use a single operating system, the OS/360.

It didn’t quite work out this way.  More than one operating system was released.  The DOS 360 (disk operating system) for small machines and the OS 360 for mid-range and large machines.  Like operating systems from the 1950’s, these systems were batch operating systems which were able to use card readers, card punches, tape drives and disk drives as well as outputting to a printer.

Operating systems became more advanced and it is during this decade that we see the development of multi programming where several jobs were kept in the memory at once and the processor was able to switch from job to job as needed.  Some of these machines had the amazing memory capacity of 256 KB.  DOS/360 could run on machines with 16 KB of memory and soon became the most popular operating system for machines with less than 256 KB.  Who really needs a machine bigger than that?

During the 1960’s operating systems were able to add support for both batch processing and real time, where  the system would supply an immediate response.   They were also able to support multiple interactive users at once via terminals which were directly connected to the computer.

Operating systems of the 1970’s

During the 1970’s computers were still the mainframe type of the previous decades.  TCPIP and LAN were developed and brought into use.  Operating systems at this time were multi-mode time sharing systems which supported batch processing, time sharing and real time applications.

Operating systems of the 1980’s

It was during the 1980’s that the personal computer took over from the mainframe.   The microprocessor meant personal computers were powerful and inexpensive, opening the market up to the hobby enthusiast and the domestic user.  This led to a standardisation of operating systems.  Personal computers (PC’s) were sold to the end user complete with the operating system on.  It was in August 1981 that Microsoft entered the operating system market.  In order to keep up with demand IBM hired Paul Allen and Bill Gates to design and build an operating system for the new IBM PC. Rather than create a system from the beginning, Allen and Gates acquired the rights to an operating system by Seattle Computer Products and use it as a template for their operating systems, PC-DOS and MS-DOS. Microsoft kept the marketing rights to the operating system.  This allowed Microsoft to license their operating system to IBM clones.  This was a different tactic to Apple and eventually allowed Microsoft to dominate the operating system market.



Following this, Microsoft goes from strength to strength and move on to develop a graphical user interface (GUI) for DOS, called Windows.  Windows 1 and 2 were not widely accepted, but in 1990 when Microsoft released Windows 3 the market for GUI operating systems really took off.

Windows wasn’t the first GUI operating system.  The Xerox Alto was a machine built in 1973 and has many of the attributes of a modern GUI operating systems.  The machine and software were designed by Xerox and given away for free, they were never intended to be sold.

Windows 3.1

Windows 3.1

Apple had been working on similar ideas and concepts based on the Xerox star and Alto GUI operating systems.  As a result, Apple released a GUI operating systems for both Lisa and Macintosh in the early 1980’s, however, Microsoft already had a large market share with MS-DOS and were able to build on this in order to further dominate the market.

Operating systems of the 1990’s

Windows 95 introduced a new look and feel to operating systems.  Although in reality it was really introducing the idea of the ‘desktop’ that had been previously used in the operating system Xerox Star and Apple Lisa.

Xerox Star Desktop

Xerox Star Desktop

The internet and the World Wide Web were beginning to have an impact on computing and were changing the needs of the average user.  Windows 95 answered these needs by including Internet Explorer 1 as a compulsory component in the gold version of the Windows 95 operating system.

The succeeding versions of windows, right up until Windows 8 which was released in October 2012, used the desktop look.  Other operating systems began to emulate this design.  For instance, Mandrake Linux looks very much like Windows 9x.

Windows 95

Apple released Mac OS 8 in 1997, it was meant to be released at the same time as Windows 95, however, Apple experienced many problems developing Mac OS 8.  In spite of these problems Mac OS 8 was one of the most successful software releases for Apple.

A bit more up to date….

The biggest change that has driven development in the technology and design of operating systems has been in its liberation from the desktop.  Operating systems are no longer confined to the PC or the laptop.  Smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices have created a need for new and more flexible operating systems.  Computing is mobile and often takes place on and between devices.  Users require interconnectivity and ease of synchronisation between the many devices they own and operate.  There have been a host of operating systems for the different types of devices that people own.  Users have got used to having a laptop or desktop with one operating system on it, and a smartphone with another and perhaps a tablet with yet another operating system.

Figures for December 2012 show a diversity of operating systems in the mobile and tablet market, a market in which Microsoft has a very small share and where Apple dominates.  However, only time will tell if this state of affairs is to continue.  Microsoft has recently introduced Windows 8 which they hope will make them the world leader for operating systems for mobile computing technology.  The introduction of Windows 8 which has versions for tablet, smartphone and PC is an attempt to connect multiple devices with only one operating system.  Windows 8 is very different looking to the previous versions of Window.  It has the look of a tablet operating system and supports touch screen.  Market analysts are unsure of whether or not this strategy will pay off and revive Microsoft’s fortunes following the decline in PC and laptop sales in recent years.