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The Evolution of The Desktop OS

  • Jan 2015
  • History, Technology
  • 10
  • 12
Evolution of Desktop Operating Systems

The earliest computers, such as the Colossus and the ENIAC, had to be programmed by physically manipulating the machines’ switches and cables. Then, in the 1950s, computers developed the ability to run programs and input data inscribed onto punched cards or tape; there were also computers that had built-in programs that could support or interact with the user’s punched card-based programs.

The operating system came about as a way to manage the input and operation of these programs, using techniques such as batch processing and multitasking. The first operating system designed to be compatible with multiple different models of computers was the IBM OS/360, announced in 1964; before this, each computer model had its own unique operating system or systems.

The first operating system that resembled the desktop operating systems that we use today was the oN-Line System (NLS), which was developed in the late 1960s at the Stanford Research Institute. NLS was the first operating system to support the use of a mouse and to feature a user interface of overlapping windows.

Though it inspired the mouse-driven graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that almost all PCs use today, NLS itself was never widely implemented, since it was difficult to use and was designed for an outdated method of computing (time-sharing). In fact, the first commercially-available PC to use an NLS-inspired, mouse-based GUI was the Xerox Star, which wasn’t released until 1981 and was also poorly received, selling only 25,000 units.

The Apple Macintosh, meanwhile, released in 1984, was the first commercially-successful PC with a mouse-based GUI for its operating system; it reached 70k sales in less than 4 months.

However, between when the first “appliance” desktop computers (pre-assembled PCs that didn’t require any training to set up or use) were introduced in the late 1970s and when Windows 3.0 made the mouse-based GUI popular even among non-Macintosh users in the early 1990s, most computers ran command-line interface operating systems.

The first widely-used operating system of this sort was the Control Program for Microcomputers (CP/M), developed in the mid-1970s.

The most popular command-line interface OS of the 1980s, on the other hand, was MS-DOS, that was the operating system most commonly installed on marketing-leading IBM PCs.  

Most of the changes to the mouse-based GUI desktop OS since the Xerox Star have been comparatively minor. Today’s desktop operating systems are much more powerful, spacious, complex, and visually-appealing than the Star, of course, but their interfaces still have the same basic elements as the Star (windows, icons, cursor, etc.) and they still have the same basic uses as that 33-year-old OS (running applications, storing files, etc.).

Though the desktop OS hasn’t changed all that much over the last three decades, computing in general has changed drastically over just the last ten years, as many people have switched from using a PC as their primary computing device to a tablet or smartphone, or access their applications via the Internet instead of from their own hard drive.

These developments, and the decline of PC sales over the last few years, have caused many to wonder if we’re approaching “The End of the PC Era.”

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