Most Important Operating System Ever


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40 responses to “Most Important Operating System Ever”

  1. hrlngrv

    To an extent Unix influenced MS-DOS between 1.x (CP/M alternative) and 2.x and later (more distinct), with command line I/O redirection and subdirectories, plus adding more control flow capabilities to COMMAND.COM. Plus the rise of C, the premier programming language of the 1980s, with a lot of Unix baked into core language constructs.

    Accurate to say that outside of PCs, Unix and its descendants predominate.

    Also maybe accurate to say that when software is free, it's cheaper, easier and more likely lots of variations would be tried, and variety is good when trying new things.

  2. ezzy

    Look, it's fun to hang out here with a bunch of fellow geeks and read and write about the technical merits of all this stuff.

    But when considering what is most important, we need to take a step back and realize what was important not to us, but to computing as a whole. Believe me, my mother, father, sisters, cousins, etc. never owned a computer with a command line OS. Your's probably didn't either. Command lines were technical, scary things for those people.

    Windows 3.x removed the command line for the masses and gave them something more pleasant and less threatening to look at. Heck, I supported thousands of people running Win 3.x and 90% of them never saw a command line and that was a really good thing.

    It was the watershed moment, regardless of the technical innovations that made it possible or the giants who's shoulders it stood on. It opened up computing for the non-technical and there are/were a heck of a lot more of them than us.

    • ErichK

      In reply to Ezzy:

      I think I agree.

      Here's an interesting aside, though -- consider the Apple //e. It was sold all the way through the end of 1993, didn't have a GUI, but was marketed toward people that were "a little afraid" of computers (that and education).

      I wonder if it was MS-DOS that was feared, not the concept of the command line in and of itself?

      • ezzy

        In reply to ErichK:

        Well there is another piece as well. Remember this is 1991. I often find people thinking of this era of computing in the terms of consumer computing or home computing.

        It was insignificant. I'm sure less than 2%, of homes had a personal computer. People with computers in their homes were hobbyists and that was what the Apple IIe was for.

        Business was driving computing and only business was driving computing in any meaningful way. If one were, say 40- years-old and had been at the same job for 15 years then was suddenly presented with a computer on his desk it was a downright jarring event.

        Here's this *thing* out of a science-fiction novel on my desk and they say I have to use it to do my job now. I saw it in the US Army around 1987 or so. The Army decided it needed computers. It bought them, and some software. The box arrived at company headquarters and ... nothing. The Army had successfully bought computers. The soldiers had a box with a computer in it and absolutely no clue.

        It wasn't much better in the Fortune 500. Making said computers easier to use via a GUI was the breakthrough.

    • shameermulji

      In reply to Ezzy:

      " Command lines were technical, scary things for those people." => Not were. They still are

      "Windows 3.x removed the command line for the masses and gave them something more pleasant and less threatening to look at." => Actually, Apple did it first with the Mac in 1984. It wasn't until Win95 that Windows really took off.

      • ezzy

        In reply to shameermulji:

        Simply not correct. You are, like many, confusing the two computing worlds. Was Windows 95 more influential to individual consumers? Absolutely. But almost no one had a computer in their home in 1991. I did, and if you were are old enough, you may have had one too.

        But we were the outliers. Part of the very tiny minority. It does not matter that Apple did it first, that didn't inspire a third of a billion computers in business, Windows 3.11 did.

        Nothing had that impact. Windows 95 just continued what started with Windows 3.11. The technical aspects don't matter. How good or bad you or I think it was doesn't matter. What it did or did not inspire in the future doesn't matter.

        It was the right OS at the perfect time. It was the Rosetta Stone that translated that strange box into something useful for the non-technical. There were many things arguably "better", but you couldn't stick a Sun Workstation on the desk of a warehouse shift-manager and expect him to do anything with it.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to Ezzy:

      Command lines were technical, scary things for those people.

      Which is why by the late 1980s 90-95% of people with PCs on their desks used batchfile-driven menu systems to run a wordprocessor, spreadsheet, mainframe terminal emulator, and maybe one or two other applications like dBase, presentation software, accounting packages. People welcomed those at work because they made many common tasks take a helluva lot less time than the old paper, pencil and paper roll calculator approach to doing most numbers-based desk work.

      Once application software was up & running, I doubt most people in 1992 found Excel 4 appreciably easier to use that Lotus 1-2-3, or Word much easier than WordPerfect (and definitely not as easy as PFS:Write).

  3. ghostrider

    I'd actually say Linux. Sure, Windows is very important, and has had a major role, but Unix/Linux have shaped and changed the world, and nothing is more scalable either - from the smallest wearable, to exascale supercomputers. It now powers the world's smartphones, and is the most widely used OS on the planet.

  4. ezzy

    This is kind of interesting. The most important operating system ever was actually Windows 3.11

    Seriously, this was, finally, computing for the masses. You can argue all you want about previous graphical operating systems, but this was the one that huge numbers of people actually used and was almost universally used in business. It was kind of a watershed for me personally. I left a DOS world to participate in a little brew-ha-ha in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq and came back to this whole Windows thing. I had seen earlier versions of Windows, but no one actually, you know, used them.

    I know everyone will want to argue endlessly over the technical merits of other operating systems, but it's a moot point. It just doesn't matter who did what first or who copied who. This was the first widely successful graphical OS. It simplified computing to the point that business would go on to put a computer on every single desk. Nothing else in history shifted the computing paradigm like Windows 3.11.

    Unix/Linux is a distant second. Unix, of course was the pioneer. Say what you will, but the greatest contribution of Linux was that it was a capable operating system that was free. LAMP stacks (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) built the Internet as we know it today, mostly because it was all reasonably capable (and in the case of Apache often more capable than non-free software) and completely free.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to Ezzy:

      Picky, but Windows 3.x like its predecessors was just a GUI environment running on top of MS-DOS. Yes, it changed computing for most people in OECD countries.

      OTOH, there are more smartphones in use today than PCs, and given the generally shorter lifetimes of phones, either there have been more smartphones than PCs used going back to their relative beginnings, or smartphones will pass PCs soon. Unlike PCs, smartphones are used in all countries in all economic strata except the very poorest. It's smartphones which have brought computing of a sort to all people, not PCs.

      FWIW, all exempt employees in damn near all financial services companies in OECD countries had PCs on their desks before Windows 3.1. Windows 3.1 brought simplified computing to home users and simplified existing PCs in the workplace.

      As for Linux, it's greatest contribution was driving a stake through the heart of proprietary Unix versions. Before Linux, major workstation and server vendors ran different, not always compatible, flavors of Unix or BSD. Linux being FOSS under the GNU License (as opposed to BSD) along with GNU's POSIX tools gave anyone who wanted it the same source code base. True uniformity across vendors. Red Hat, SuSE, Debian, Slackware, Caldera, etc all could run the same binaries built for a given processor architecture. It sure helped that Linux was cost-free, but its main advantage was that anyone & everyone could use the same foundation.

      • ezzy

        In reply to hrlngrv:

        I will concede that I really hadn't thought about phones at all. Now that I do I tend to think it's the processors and batteries that were developed in the late 00's that made them do more "computer-like" things is what was really important there, but one would have to give a nod to the original IOS as being pretty important. It's like many things Apple, not the first, but the first to truly support third-party apps (there were a lot of what could be called "smart phones" at the time, almost all others were proprietary.)

        And yes, Window's 3.x was a graphical overlay for DOS essentially. But that was the key. It got people clicking icons and I maintain the jump from the command line to the GUI was the single most important event in computing history. Imagine how popular smart-phones would be today if all they had was a c:> prompt. :)

        It's not the greatest technical achievement, Windows certainly didn't invent icons or GUIs, but that was the point where everything shifted to the GUI on a grand scale and got billions involved in computing that hadn't been there before. It simplified computing for the masses.

        • hrlngrv

          In reply to Ezzy:

          Numbers. I doubt there were one billion people using PCs before the late 1990s or early 2000s. IOW, Windows 3.x didn't get billions involved in computing. Hundreds of million concentrated in North America, Europe and East Asia until well into the Windows 95 era.

          I'm also remembering the GUIs which predated Windows 3.x on PCs, e.g., GEM, and to a lesser extent a few office suites back when they were still called integrated software. Yes, Windows 3.1 popularized the concept. FWIW, Windows 1.x didn't run anything other than its own applets, Windows 2.x only had Excel 2.x, and Windows 3.0 was (to put it mildly) crash-prone.

          I might be more impressed with Windows 3.1 circa 1992 if I hadn't interviewed for some jobs in the mid-1980s at companies already using Unix workstations and CAD/CAM. I wound up heading into financial services instead, but from what I had seen myself, MSFT wasn't exactly a leader.

  5. waethorn

    "UNIX/Unix" is dead. What we have now is not that. They are derivatives, forks, and "inspired-by" products that are not part of the original thing that Thompson and Ritchie made.

    Similar concepts, but there were also a lot of advancements in Plan 9 that never took hold either. It's a shame too - Plan 9 had some really good features that should've been introduced into Linux and the BSD's that the IT world would be better off having that never got proper integration.

  6. ezzy

    In reply to warren:

    It's because your hung up on the technical again. What Win 3.11 did, was enough.

    You had something that would, at the time, provide hundreds of millions of users a graphical environment that would run on the machines of the day.

    I daresay I don't propose that it was the best operating system ever, just the most important. And honestly, for it's time it really wasn't bad. I mean you are trying to run a GUI and multi-tasking on a 16 Mhz 386 with, at best, 4MB of RAM. I'm not sure how much more you could ask for.

    The importance of it was the GUI, no matter how primitive and most people who used it absolutely did use Fileman. You and I may not have, but that's the point. The professionals were the outliers and we don't count. I mean just giving a layman a simple visualization of a drive's structure was huge, they were lost at the command line.

    The technical aspects of Win 3.11 simply aren't important. It was good enough to move the secretaries, accountants, office managers, shipping clerks, middle managers, and nurses of the world into day-to-day computing at work.

    That changed the world. You are looking for something that influenced future operating systems. Not nearly as important.

  7. hrlngrv

    In reply to warren:

    I was imprecise. By admin account, I meant an account in the Administrators group. For me, it's always a different account than my main user account. And I stand by my statement that there are some things which can't be done with temporarily elevated privileges (obtained through UAC by entering the password for an account in the Administrators group while logged in with an account not in that group) but require being done while logged in with an account in the Administrators group.

    sudo in Linux and Unix-ish OSes is much more comprehensive. I'm not trying to delve into the precise mechanisms in Windows and Linux, just observing that from my perspective the Linux sudo approach seems more comprehensive and efficient.

  8. jimchamplin

    Hell yeah UNIX.

  9. wright_is

    Yeah, UNIX has been behind a lot of advancements. It isn't the best OS ever, at least from a user view point, I still much prefer DEC VMS and DCL, for example, which led to Windows NT. But it is the one that set the path for most other operating systems to follow.

    It is at the same time cryptic and difficult to get into, from an admin/developer point of view, but it is also simple and flexible. If it had used DCL instead of Bash, it might have been even more friendly. :-P But in all seriousness, it really has defined a generation of computing.

    We may not have had the year of UNIX on the desktop or Linux on the desktop, but it has still dominated every other area.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to wright_is:

      DCL plays no noticeable role in Windows. All the VMS influence is behind the scenes.

      I never used any DEC systems unless they were running BSD. Unix had definite advantages over IBM mainframe OSes, though if one got very familiar with CLIST one could do a lot of interesting things not least getting closer to here-documents in scripts than what Windows's CMD supports. While I never used VM / CMS much, but I know a few very (overly?) serious REXX scripters who still use it for all their own scripting. There are a few REXX interpreters for most OSes. Are there any DCL for Windows interpreters?

      In any case, was it Unix itself so much or Bell Labs followed by UC Berkeley which really made Unix what it and its descendants have become? That is, was it the tools-based approach and lots of very intelligent and clever people making lots of different tools?

      [ADDED: I had to add spaces on both sides of the / and remove dot-EXE following CMD to be able to post this.]

      • wright_is

        In reply to hrlngrv:
        DCL plays no noticeable role in Windows. All the VMS influence is behind the scenes.

        Yes, unfortunately. They used the groundwork from VMS to create NT, but butchered it to look like MS-DOS and Windows.

        I used to use Rexx on the Amiga (wasn't it calles Arexx?). AFAIK there is no DCL shell for Windows, but you can get OpenVMS to run on SimH, for free if you are a private individual.

        • hrlngrv

          In reply to wright_is:

          I looked into DCL after reading your original comment. The only thing which looked clearly more direct than Unix-ish shells was indirect variable referencing, as in,

          x = "bar"

          foo'x' = "ugh"

          so that foobar would hold "ugh". The same thing would require eval calls in Unix-ish shells. OTOH, I'll take Unix-ish shells' alias commands and shell functions over DCL verb definitions.

          • wright_is

            In reply to hrlngrv:

            What I liked was that the commands were less cryptic than UNIX.

            To change the default directory:

            SET DEFAULT disk:[directory.sub-directory.sub-sub-directory]

            You could use the minimum number of characters to make the command unique, E.g. SET DEF or SH DEF for SHOW DEFAULT.

            There were also Aliases.

            I wrote a complete, parameter file controlled, Lotus 1-2-3 menu-style system for DCL, it needed a 4 line C program to accept a keypress on the fly, as opposed to line input (waiting for the user to press return), otherwise it was an 100% DCL module.

            A mate of mine wrote a nice system for batch job maintenance, where you could copy and paste jobs between queues and even machines, just using the text console.

            • hrlngrv

              In reply to wright_is:

              I wrote my 1-2-3 style menu system using awk and ANSI console escape sequences under MS-DOS. It used a very small .COM file created with DEBUG for single character input. If I'd had Linux at the time, I could have used read -rsn1 to read a character at a time, but the same awk script and the same ANSI escape sequences.

  10. illuminated

    Facebook just announced their OS. It may be the most important OS ever since it would have monetization built-in. We only had a few people killed and elections affected by Facebook. With their OS they could transform people into remote-controlled cockroaches. That would be truly the most important operating system ever.

  11. ErichK

    I do enjoy tinkering and learning about Linux on the used Dell tower that I bought a couple years ago. (I know Linux is Unix-like, not true Unix, if I may use that term.)

    My only, oh, I don't know, "beef", I guess, would be the fact that it seems like it was designed for a secret society of programmers, with some of its cryptic commands. It sure has come a long way in user-friendliness, however.

    One wonders if it really should become a master of all trades like it's trying to be, what with even gaming becoming more and more popular on it, or if it should have stayed in the computer lab.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to ErichK:

      You would have had to have used IBM mainframes running DOS/360 and programming with PL/I to appreciate the full beauty of early Unix and C minimalism. Besides, on old serial terminals using 110 baud modems, as few characters as possible was very desirable.

      Stayed in the computer lab. You do know Unix was originally developed by/at Bell Labs? You do know that Bell Labs/AT&T came up with the first electronic typesetting system using troff running under Unix? You do have some idea of the practical value of electronic typesetting to a company filing as many patent applications and technical specs as AT&T? Or perhaps not.

      • ErichK

        In reply to hrlngrv:

        I didn't mean it in a negative way. What I meant was that a lot of people are trying to turn Linux into something that makes *everyone* happy. I just meant that maybe operating systems should stick to being good at only certain things, otherwise they become too big and promise too much. People think Windows is bloated for that reason. The "computer lab" comment was me trying to say that Unix-based OSes might be better off in the hands of experts, programmers, engineers, etc., instead of trying to come to the desktop as well. That's all I meant.

        But obviously, it's very adaptable, otherwise we wouldn't have Android and stuff like that.

        I do spend time reading up on the history of these topics, although I admit I don't know it all.

        EDIT: Spelling.

        • hrlngrv

          In reply to ErichK:

          The Linux kernel is very adaptable and customizable. For those willing to do the work, it can be made quite small. For example, have no Bluetooth peripherals, possible to strip out support.

          The fact it runs on embedded systems to phones to PCs to servers to supercomputers means all of those systems can use the same supporting tools in addition to their main tools. In terms of security, most of the OS can be run from read-only media.

          The fact that it provides the foundation for the remaining major phone OSes as well as macOS, not usually accused of user-hostility, provides some evidence it can be a general purpose computing environment. Only the command line and standard shells have significant learning curves, but the existence of WSL provides considerable evidence that even MSFT accepts that despite its learning curve, it's the command line environment of choice.

          Finally, Windows might also be better off in the hands of experts, programmers, engineers, etc, as anyone who's had to respond to family & friends computer emergencies can attest.

          • ErichK

            In reply to hrlngrv:

            Sure, explaining what the registry is to an average consumer is probably a hard thing to do. They might also have a hard time with the "sudo" command.

            But I still think that if consumers are going to succumb to phishing attacks, click on things they shouldn't, download torrents, use pirated software, and watch porn, I don't think Windows is to blame necessarily. (At least not in all cases.)

            Of course, I could always be wrong. Especially if there are much more advanced safeguards in *nix that I'm not aware of.

            • hrlngrv

              In reply to ErichK:

              They might also have a hard time with the "sudo" command.

              Maybe, but sudo is easier than Window's runas. sudo is also arguably safer than Windows UAC because users enter their own passwords and particular users need to be members of the sudoers group. Under Windows, it's only necessary to know the password for an admin account, and there are some things under Windows which can only be done by logging in as an admin, e.g., creating symlinks under Windows's default group policy.

              As for downloading torrents, that's how I get LibreOffice from the Document Foundation. Nothing wrong with torrents per se, just as there's nothing wrong with USENET per se when participating in comp.sci or comp.lang.python. Warez torrents and newsgroups aren't all there are to torrents and USENET.


    Macintosh System Software (System 1.0, Finder 1.0)

    This was the software on the original Mac 128k that Launched in January 1984.

    It was so revolutionary .. Microsoft copied it.

    • wright_is

      In reply to TEAMSWITCHER:

      It wasn't revolutionary, it was copied from the Xerox PARC WIMP system, Altos, ISTR.

      That was even more revolutionary, being based around SmallTalk, the first truly object orientated language.

      • jimchamplin

        In reply to wright_is:

        These claims make the rounds constantly.

        Yeah, Jobs saw it, and his goal was to make that work in a commercial product for actual users. Copied in concept, but the work done at PARC isn’t something you’d want to use now. Have you ever seen that UI? Used it? It honestly was part of an earlier era in computing and designed for an entirely different purpose. Mouse chords, using different buttons for different actions, lack of persistent menus, at cetera.

        Apple in the early 80s took the concepts and made something that would be more widely accepted. You’d never be able to operate an Alto with a two-button mouse, let alone one button ?

        Microsoft on the other hand literally copied. They had early access to APIs and code. They literally copied what they were given.