The changing world of operating systems

My first computing experience as an academic was in Trinity College Dublin in 1981, when I persuaded the Computer Centre there to let me use the DEC (Digital) mainframe computer for word-processing purposes. If I recall correctly, the software used was called ‘Runoff’, and it was all command line based. It was great fun but amazingly complicated; though what was even more complicated was how to store my files on computer tapes, and how in turn these were loaded and dismounted. Happy days! But at the time I would have had no sense of what a computer ‘operating system’ might be.

Then my department, the School of Business Studies, took the revolutionary step of buying a personal computer – one, for the whole department – and this was a massive machine made by a company called Shelton. And here I was first made aware of something called an ‘operating system’, in this case CP/M (‘Control Program for Microcomputers’). For wordprocessing purposes, we used something called ‘WordStar‘, again using command lines but with some WYSIWYG features (‘What You See Is What You Get’). And from there we followed the industry trend and soon had a small number of IBM-compatible PCs using Microsoft’s MS-DOS.

A good friend of mine had started using the very first Apple Macintosh computer, and in 1986 I followed suit and bought my first Mac, the old box-like computer that looked revolutionary and behaved in a revolutionary manner. As I progressed my computing skills I also watched how my colleagues managed with MS Windows, and then Windows for Workgroups. For a short while I went back to the PC standard when Windows 95 came out, and I stayed there until the launch of Windows XP; at which point I returned to the Macintosh.

Of course while I was jumping around between operating systems, Microsoft was establishing its total market dominance with Windows – which at first had been a graphic interface essentially sitting on top of MS-DOS, but which later became a full operating system in its own right. But right now that dominance may be fading somewhat. Partly this is to do with the growth of other operating systems, in particular the Apple OS and Linux. Interestingly Google has just announced that it is phasing out the use of Windows in its operations.

In mobile devices there is also a healthy development of competition between market leader Apple, Microsoft and Google’s Android.

But perhaps the whole computing world is moving away altogether from visible operating systems. As computing is perhaps going to be done more and more in the ‘cloud‘, where software and file storage is provided on remote servers and the device you have in your hand merely gives you access to that server. The interface you work with for these purposes is really just part of the internet, and operating systems (which essentially control what you do with your personal device) may become much less of a feature, or may slip away completely as far as the average user is concerned. This will be a challenging setting for Microsoft in particular, which for the first time recently fell behind Apple in market capitalisation.

Clearly we are in a era of technological transition. It should be exciting.

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3 Comments on “The changing world of operating systems”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    never mind the operating systems what about all those fun programming languages from the days when people had to learn to program rather than be passive consumers of software packages? Algol, Cobol, Fortran, LISP, Forth, C, Pascal and what we learned using punchcards in Edinburgh: IMP 77? Ah those were the days when OOP meant you’d just made a mistake and not object oriented programming, still Java is a chuckle from time to time….and the kids love Scratch

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