Bill Gates' original dream when he created Microsoft was to have "a computer on every desk and in every home, all running Microsoft software." Clearly, he accomplished that goal. Depending on whose statistics you want to believe, Windows has a market share in the high 80% - low 90% range. So, unless you run Linux or prefer Mac OS X, chances are you're a Windows user.
When it comes to desktop operating systems, your choices are really pretty narrow. You either run Windows, or you do some Unix-like OS. There are the 12,000 different Linux distributions. There's always FreeBSD if you prefer your Unix without a Finnish flavor. You could go the vendor route and run AIX or HP-UX. Sun has Solaris, and as much as you might want to, you can't forget SCO. And of course, there's always Mac OS X. Although it may sound like variety when it comes down to it, it's still Windows vs. Unix.
There are other options, or at least there USED to be. Here are a list of five of the best operating systems that you probably never used.
No discussion can be had of Microsoft alternatives without mentioning OS/2. Until Microsoft shipped Windows 2000 Professional, OS/2 4.0 was probably my desktop OS of choice. For the purposes of this section, I'm referring to OS/2 2.0 and later, not IBM and Microsoft's ill fated OS/2 1.x series.
IBM billed OS/2 as being a "Better DOS than DOS" and a "Better Windows than Windows". Anyone who ever ran OS/2 knows that IBM largely succeeded. From a technical perspective, OS/2 was much more solid than DOS, Windows 3.x or even Windows 9x.
OS/2 had many innovations that we come to view as standard equipment in an OS today. OS/2 was the first major 32-bit operating system. It was completely multi-threaded. Its HPFS file system resisted fragmentation and could natively support large filenames. OS/2 was the first major OS to integrate a Web browser into the operating system. It was also the first operating system to offer voice-control.
There are many reasons why OS/2 failed. Windows 95 came out and even though OS/2 was more stable, its inability to run Win32 API-based programs doomed it. It ran DOS and Windows 3.1 programs so well, ISVs never had an incentive to create native OS/2 programs. Microsoft's licensing scheme with OEMs discouraged hardware vendors, including IBM itself, from bundling OS/2. It didn't help that IBM couldn't market OS/2 to save its life.
Even though the last version of OS/2 shipped in 1996, IBM continued to support OS/2 until December 31, 2006. Many OS/2 supporters have tried to get IBM to release OS/2's source code for open source development, but IBM refuses. Supposedly this is due to some of the Microsoft code that still exists in OS/2 that IBM has exclusive rights to. At the same time however, IBM licensed OS/2 to Serenity Systems who continue to support, upgrade, and extend OS/2 in their own product called eComStation. Below is a screen shot of eCS from my test machine:
One final bit of OS/2 trivia. Microsoft co-developed OS/2 1.x with IBM. When IBM and Microsoft got 'divorced' in the late 80's, Microsoft took its part of the code for what was to become OS/2 3.0 on the IBM/Microsoft product roadmap and created Windows NT 3.1, which today lives on as Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008.
Every OS/2 user's favorite quote from Bill Gates is, of course: "We believe OS/2 is the platform for the 90's."
The NeXTSTEP OS is one that even I never used. It came up in conversation with Jason Hiner who had used it while a student at IU. NeXTSTEP has a important place in history that can't be overlooked.
Today, Apple is Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs is Apple. You can't really think of one without the other. It wasn't always that way though. In 1985, in grand Greek Tragedy form, Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple by John Sculley, the executive that Jobs himself brought in from Pepsi to save Apple from financial disaster. When Jobs left Apple, he went on to form the NeXT Computer Company.
NeXT's initial goal was to create powerful workstations for education and business. The NeXT workstation's major innovation at the time was its 256Mb WORM drive that it used for removable storage rather than a traditional floppy drive. The NeXT came with the entire works of Shakespeare on a single CD-ROM which was one of the 'cool factors' about the box when it was introduced. The NeXT workstation also continued Job's history of thinking different when it came to design, because the NeXT workstation was a simple Borg-like cube.
At the heart of the NeXT workstation was the NeXTSTEP OS. This OS was based on the Mach Unix kernel. It was originally developed for NeXT's PowerPC CPU, but Jobs also created a version of it that ran on the Intel 486 CPU called NeXTSTEP 486. Here's a screenshot of NeXTSTEP from Wikipedia:
NeXTSTEP is significant because when Jobs finally retook his rightful place as the head of Apple in 1996, he did so by arranging Apple to buy NeXT. In doing so, the NeXTSTEP OS came along as part of the package and ultimately became Mac OS X.
The BeOS was an interesting, powerful, and probably the most jinxed OS that was ever created. It debuted in 1991 and some of its innovations such as a 64-bit journaling file system in BFS, still haven't found their way into current operating systems.
BeOS came very close to becoming the operating system that we use on the Mac platform today. BeOS started out as an proprietary operating system for the BeBox which was a workstation that ran PowerPC CPUs. When the BeBox failed to go anywhere in the marketplace, Be tried to sell the company to Apple to replace MacOS, which by 1996 was starting to show its age in the face of Windows 95. Apple nearly did it, but decided to buy NeXT and bring back Steve Jobs as mentioned above.
Be then continued its desperate bid to find a home and purpose for the OS. It started by trying to peddle BeOS to the makers of Mac-clones who were cut off from Apple when Steve Jobs returned. That didn't work. (Yes, in the mid-90's you could actually buy clones of the Mac. Apple licensed the OS and the Mac ROMs to OEMs. One of Steve's first actions upon getting back in at Apple was to squash the Mac-clone market.)
Be then tried to port the BeOS to the Intel platform and get some traction against Windows. That didn't work either. Be next tried to create a version of BeOS for Internet appliances. When that failed as well, Be sold out to PalmSource who wanted to include BeOS technology in their next OS. Guess how that turned out? PalmSource subsequently crashed and burned, selling the rights to BeOS to Access Co, a maker of mobile devices.
I never used BeOS other than to install it and kick it around a little to see how it worked. I have a copy running in Virtual PC on my test machine, but due to limited hardware support of the virtual machine environment, BeOS won't come up in color and won't talk to the network card. The screen shot below comes from jfedor.org.
The last two I want to mention aren't really operating systems per se, but rather operating environments. But, if Windows 9x can qualify as an operating system, so can these. The first is DESQview.
DESQview was a program that ran on top of DOS that allowed you to multitask DOS programs. As a matter of fact, until Microsoft introduced Windows 95, with the exception of OS/2 the best way to run multiple character based DOS programs was through the use of DESQview.
DESQview didn't multithread programs, because such technology didn't exist at the time. Rather, through the use of QEMM, DESQview used expanded memory on your computer if it had an 80386 CPU to run DOS programs simultaneously. If you only had a 286, you couldn't use expanded memory, but DESQview would still task-switch programs through extended memory. It wasn't as efficient as running on a 386, but it still got the job done.
Of course, Windows 3.x could multitask DOS programs. Compared to DESQview however, Windows 3.0 it had so much overhead, that it was slower and often wouldn't leave enough lower 640Kb memory behind for DOS programs to run. If you had enough extended memory in your computer, QEMM, DESQview's memory manager, could actually free almost the entire lower 640Kb memory area for program use.
DESQview was one of the first victims in the PC tradition of Good Marketing Beats Better Technology. Even though DESQview multitasked DOS programs better than Windows, Microsoft ultimately won the day. Quarterdeck, the maker of DESQview, tried creating a GUI-version of it called DESQview/X, but this never went anywhere. Ultimately, Quarterdeck sold out to Symantec. Symantec still owns the rights to DESQview, but doesn't market it.
I used DESQview extensively in college. Even on a 80286 without QEMM, you could still multitask programs very well using DESQview. Unfortunately, I couldn't find my copy of DESQview to grab a screenshot for this blog post. I'll see if I can find it and get one. For now, I found this very grainy image from Charles Petzold's Web site.
GEOS / GeoWorks
In early 90's if you wanted to get on the GUI bandwagon and didn't want to use a Mac, your only choice was really Windows 3.0. But to make Windows 3.0 work properly, you really needed to have 386 with EGA or VGA graphics. If you had an 'older' computer, you were pretty much out of luck. That's where PC/GEOS came in.
GEOS was a GUI that ran on Atari and Commodore 64 computers. In 1990, GeoWorks created a version of GEOS called PC/GEOS which would support a GUI and limited multitasking on 286 and even some XT machines (8088-based PC clones). GEOS was lightweight, fast, and easy to use but never got traction from software developers because it was hard to program for and the developer kit was expensive.
GEOS included Ensemble which was its own office suite program consisting of a word processor, spreadsheet, dialer, database, and calendar. This was in an era where Microsoft Office didn't exist and if you wanted these applications you had to buy them separately. GEOS was also used by AOL for the DOS version of their connection software.
Once Windows conquered the desktop and hardware caught up to Windows' appetite, GEOS fell out of favor. GeoWorks ultimately sold out to NewDeal Inc, which tried to market the OS as a Windows alternative to those with older machines and for schools. When this didn't work, NewDeal ultimately failed and sold its business to BreadBox who continue to make, support and update a version of GEOS called BreadBox Ensemble.
My copy of GEOS is long gone, but I ran it for a while on my Tandy 1000. It did the job, but I needed more power than what was in the supported applications and it didn't run DOS programs very well. The attached screen shot is from the Guidebook Gallery.
All that and more
So there you have 5 of the best operating systems you probably never used. Each introduced innovations that we still use today, as well as some we're still trying to catch up with even though the programs debuted in the 20th century. In each case, they were overlooked, underrated, and ultimately crushed by the Microsoft steamroller.
There are plenty of OSes I left off the list: CP/M, TRS-DOS, LDOS, DR-DOS and others (which I encourage you to remind me of.) We'll try to cover those in the future as well.