Sorry, Windows, Android is now the most popular operating system. And, as we never fail to point out around here, Android has Linux beating in its chilly little penguin heart, so that means yay for the la resistance!
There was a time before the home computer market homogenized, when there were dozens of different computer platforms – and everybody was perfectly fine with it. Decades of competition whittled down that number to a handful. Now that the end-user world has largely moved on from the desktop to the phone and tablet market, it’s time to look back on the decades of bitter desktop wars and count the casualties. Here we’ll exhibit a few operating systems that never quite caught on or at best only found a niche market. Rank yourself with high geek points if you’ve even seen three of them.
Few technology companies have had the chutzpah to create a hardware and software platform at the same time, bundled together and incompatible with anything else. Apple alone succeeded with that model, and its software was based on BSD Unix. For awhile, BeOS looked like it could have a future. It was impressive enough in its time to gain high praise in author Neal Stephenson’s landmark essay “In the Beginning was the Command Line.”
Released on the BeBox by the French company Be, Inc., in 1995, BeOS was a desktop system which didn’t look that different from the contemporary Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac desktops of the time. Be’s systems, running on a BeBox based on PowerPC architecture, were far more robust than IBM beige boxes running Microsoft Windows and cheaper than a MacIntosh. It was also declared to be a rethinking of the whole concept of an operating system, a clean slate to start from scratch. Boundless enthusiasm and ambition rippled from the marketing, confident that they could keep doing this forever.
Nothing much really killed the BeBox except that it failed to catch on. Production of BeBoxes halted in 1997, in order to focus on developing software for BeOS, and then after that the BeBox was discontinued by 2002. The company ended up being acquired by Palm Inc., and the obligatory open source hobbyist version of BeOS today is the Haiku project.
In an alternate universe, IBM’s OS/2 shares half the desktop market with Apple and Bill Gates is a middle-class app developer looking forward to a quiet retirement in a few years. That’s how it was supposed to play out. IBM’s OS/2 system development began in 1985 when IBM management grew tired of watching everybody else profit from writing operating systems for its desktop PCs. In a joint partnership with Microsoft, which was still years away from its desktop market explosion, they worked on OS/2 as a desktop GUI bolted on the front of the DOS command line, exactly like how Microsoft Windows ended up.
The two company’s corporate cultures turned out to be at odds. Microsoft complained that IBM was too bureaucratic and its design philosophy too bloated; IBM complained that Microsoft was playing too loose with its reliability standards and their designs were too terse. In the end, Microsoft jumped IBM’s ship and developed Microsoft Windows into the 3.1 series, which took over the IBM desktop market by storm. IBM limped along with OS/2, eventually releasing its most refined version, OS/2 Warp, by 1995. While Microsoft had a stranglehold on the desktop market at home, IBM executives pushed OS/2 Warp at every opportunity to the business sector. By and large, IBM was just terrible at marketing their own operating system.
OS/2 Warp survives today on many legacy systems in the industrial sector, particularly in finance. To encounter an OS/2 Warp system in the present, it looks and drives like a shoddy and far more ugly version of Windows 95, prone to crashing if you frown at it. IBM, while still comfortably dominant in the hardware sector, quietly gave up its dream of being an operating system contender and has since fallen back on Linux for its high end hardware, Watson for its A.I. research, and Microsoft for its pre-installed systems.
Minix’s chief role in computing history, it turns out, was just to be a foil for Linux Torvalds, creator of Linux. Andrew S. Tanenbaum was a professor at an Amsterdam university who created Minix, a small Unix-like system, to demonstrate ideas out of his textbook on operating system design. Minix was so tiny that it could fit onto a 1.4 MB floppy disk and even recompile itself from that disk.
But Minix’s chief claim to fame is the inspiration for Torvalds to launch Linux. In the midst of doing so, Torvalds and Tanenbaum got into a now-famous debate on Usenet. The crux of the disagreement was that Torvalds thought operating system kernels (the backbone of the system) were better off incorporating services such as device drivers and system calls, hence being a monolithic kernel, while Tanenbaum contended that a micro-kernel, keeping the services separate and outside the kernel, was the way to go.
It seems time has proven Torvalds right, since Linux is the one we know about now. Minix can still be downloaded today, although it’s strictly a command-line system. As for Tanenbaum, he seems pretty plucky for a guy who fought the notoriously cantankerous Torvalds and lost; he seems as proud today for his place in Linux history as if he made it himself. As it is, Tanenbaum is an honored professor and successful author on the side, so there’s no hard feelings.
ReactOS is not just an operating system, but an act of daring defiance against what was, at one time, the most dominant corporate monopoly in human history. ReactOS is aimed at being a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Windows. It’s a hopeful pipe dream to solve the problem of proprietary lock-in: When all third-party software is developed for the Microsoft Windows platform, nobody has a choice to run anything except Windows.
There’s a number of problems that keep ReactOS in a state of perpetual alpha. First, they’re stuck forever chasing Microsoft’s taillights while not being able to copy Microsoft too exactly or they get sued. The project still produces a desktop frozen in time from Windows XP, when Microsoft has leaped several desktops ahead. The Wine software project also allows one to run Windows-based software on non-Windows environments without the fuss of running a whole different system. In the intervening years since ReactOS was started, the open source and free software world has created many drop-in replacements for proprietary Windows-only software anyway. And finally, now that the next generation of devices, phones and tablets, are more likely to run Android than Windows, Microsoft isn’t even close to a monopoly anymore.
ReactOS is stuck being a grueling, laborious solution to a vanishingly small problem. Currently, you can obtain a CD of ReactOS and it does boot on a desktop or laptop – half the time – but it’s probably the most fragile system out there, prone to crash at the mildest provocation.
You can win a lot of bar stool bets by asking “What was Microsoft’s first operating system?” Was it Windows or MS-DOS? No, that would be Xenix, Microsoft’s own Unix version, licensed from AT&T.
To explain why AT&T licensed out Unix: Starting in 1974, the US Government prosecuted AT&T on antitrust grounds; this would drag out until 1984 when AT&T was forced to split up into several smaller companies. One of the conditions of the fallout was that they were forbidden to sell software, even though AT&T’s Bell Labs was the birthplace of Unix, the only effective operating system model the world had even then. However, they were legally allowed to license Unix to other companies to sell, and so one of those licenses went to Microsoft before they had their own system in 1980. This made Microsoft, originally an application developer whose primary product was a BASIC programming language interpreter, one of the first companies to sell Unix commercially – (see timeline!)
By 1989, Microsoft had terminated the Xenix project. It’s ironic that they even held a Unix license to begin with, since Microsoft spent a good two decades fighting a pitched battle against Unix-derived systems on the desktop. They sued both BSD and Linux, sold their Xenix license to the SCO Group which turned out to be a Microsoft proxy so they could sue Linux some more, and publicly called Linux “un-American” and “a cancer.” Considering that Bill Gates, founder and then-CEO of Microsoft, became the world’s youngest billionaire and the world’s richest person based on Microsoft profits, the idea of a competitor at zero cost was obviously terrifying to them.
But times have changed, and the desktop has returned to a reasonably placid front while today’s technology companies battle for control of markets related to mobile devices, servers, embedded software, Cloud Computing, and the Internet of Things. Only years ago, Microsoft was settling its own conditions after being sued by both the US and EU for being a monopoly, and now the desktop barely interests them.
Ready for the punchline? As of November of 2016, Microsoft joined the Linux Foundation.
Out of all the systems we’ve discussed, none brings tears of nostalgia to a salty computer geek’s eye like NeXTSTEP. It’s second only to the Commodore Amiga in devoted fans. NeXTSTEP ran on the NeXT Cube, a custom computer designed by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs while Jobs was not working with Apple. The NeXT box was a black cube-shaped powerhouse with state-of-the-art hardware for its time, and NeXTSTEP, its operating system, was based on a souped-up version of Unix. It came along in 1989, packed to the brim with geek toys for development, and sporting a sweet and well-thought-out user interface that looked better and worked more intuitively than any system that came before it. It was the first system to support 3D desktop widgets, full-color icons, notification pop-ups, and too many features to list here.
So attractive was the NeXT box to geek talent, that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, implemented it on a NeXT box and coded the world’s first web browser on it. ID Software, developers of video game franchises such as Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake, ran NeXTSTEP in-house. Quite a bit of NeXT’s innovations influenced modern technology designs for years to come.
So of course, when Apple wanted Steve Jobs back, it simply bought the NeXT Computer corporation in 1996, for a price of $427 million. NeXT technology found its way into Apple, NeXTSTEP was bred back into the Apple software pool and begat Mac OS X, and the NeXT Computer was no more. NeXTSTEP survives today, in spirit, in the GNUStep project, another open source remnant of a once-legendary operating system.