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History of Operating Systems

An operating system (OS) is a software program that manages the hardware and software resources of a computer. The OS performs basic tasks, such as controlling and allocating memory, prioritizing the processing of instructions, controlling input and output devices, facilitating networking, and managing files.


The first computers did not have operating systems. However, software tools for managing the system and simplifying the use of hardware appeared very quickly afterwards, and gradually expanded in scope. By the early 1960s, commercial computer vendors were supplying quite extensive tools for streamlining the development, scheduling, and execution of jobs on batch processing systems. Examples were produced by UNIVAC and Control Data Corporation, amongst others.

Through the 1960s, several major concepts were developed, driving the development of operating systems. The development of the IBM System/360 produced a family of mainframe computers available in widely differing capacities and price points, for which a single operating system OS/360 was planned (rather than developing ad-hoc programs for every individual model).


This concept of a single OS spanning an entire product line was crucial for the success of System/360 and, in fact, IBM’s current mainframe operating systems are distant descendants of this original system; applications written for the OS/360 can still be run on modern machines. OS/360 also contained another important advance: the development of the hard disk permanent storage device (which IBM called DASD). Another key development was the concept of time-sharing: the idea of sharing the resources of expensive computers amongst multiple computer users interacting in real time with the system. Time sharing allowed all of the users to have the illusion of having exclusive access to the machine; the Multics timesharing system was the most famous of a number of new operating systems developed to take advantage of the concept.

Multics, particularly, was an inspiration to a number of operating systems developed in the 1970s, notably Unix. Another commercially-popular minicomputer operating system was VMS. The first microcomputers did not have the capacity or need for the elaborate operating systems that had been developed for mainframes and minis; minimalistic operating systems were developed.

One notable early operating system was CP/M, which was supported on many early microcomputers and was largely cloned in creating MS-DOS, which became wildly popular as the operating system chosen for the IBM PC (IBM’s version of it was called IBM-DOS or PC-DOS), its successors making Microsoft one of the world’s most profitable companies. The major alternative throughout the 1980s in the microcomputer market was Mac OS, tied intimately to the Apple Macintosh computer.

By the 1990s, the microcomputer had evolved to the point where, as well as extensive GUI facilities, the robustness and flexibility of operating systems of larger computers became increasingly desirable. Microsoft’s response to this change was the development of Windows NT, which served as the basis for Microsoft’s entire operating system line starting in 1999. Apple rebuilt their operating system on top of a Unix core as Mac OS X, released in 2001. Hobbyist-developed reimplementations of Unix, assembled with the tools from the GNU project, also became popular; versions based on the Linux kernel are by far the most popular, with the BSD derived UNIXes holding a small portion of the server market. The growing complexity of embedded devices has a growing trend to use embedded operating systems on them.

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