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Defining OS

The purpose of a computer operating system is purely to allow programs to run on the computer and utilize the faculties of the hardware installed. It is no less than the soul of the machine. While a calculator only requires a simple arithmetic engine with simplified inputs and outputs, a large research mainframe requires a much more complex system of input, output, storage, memory management, and busing to connect peripheral devices.

A Brief History

In the 1950’s and ’60’s, institutions that owned computers (at the time, machines that took up large rooms) were required to write the operating system for the machine based on their needs. This was not an efficient means of programming. Every computer upgrade required rewriting the software to run it. This was very costly. Additionally, the simplistic operating system only allowed one set of operations to run at any given time which wasted resources and kept the processor time expensive, itself.

During the 1960’s, a large multi-institutional group (lead by MIT) attempted to solve this problem by creating an efficient, multi-user, timesharing system. Though they made some breakthroughs, the operating system that they designed, Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service), was still bulky and inefficient. The project was soon abandoned.

A few die-hard users at Bell Labs, Inc. decided to continue the effort, and after a few years, UNIX was born. The name was an intended pun on the operating system that predated it.

UNIX is the first operating system to promote object-oriented programming and data pipes which set the standard for operating systems to come. The versatility of UNIX is apparent by its ability to command a range of devices from mainframes to microcomputers. Unix has been described as “of unusual simplicity, power, and elegance….” Its development and evolution led to a new philosophy of computing, and it has been a never-ending source of both challenges and joy to programmers around the world. (Bell Labs, n.d.)

The First UNIX Port

Just as UNIX was being tapped as a useful business tool, one of the developers on sabbatical took a teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) where he taught classes on UNIX. Professors and students at UCB continued the development of the operating system on their own and eventually, with funding from DARPA, created the BSD operating system, ported from Bell Labs’ UNIX.

UNIX is certainly the precursor to the contemporary operating system, and though it alone proved to be a reliable, efficient and usable operating system, it is responsible for the growth of computer technology in the last four decades. It is the definition of the contemporary operating system and the standard for comparison.

UNIX has been modified to be run on mainframes, supercomputers, and microcomputers to include desktop PC (Linux) and Apple (NEXTSTEP) computer systems.

The NEXTSTEP For Apple

Apple’s Mac OSX is derived from NEXTSTEP which uses two different flavors of UNIX, Mach and BSD, and relies heavily on open-source software packages, essentially free software programs with access to the source code for user-level modification. Apple attempts to use the security and efficiency of UNIX while competing directly with Microsoft for market-share. (Singh, 2003)

The Mainstay

Currently, Microsoft Windows XP is essentially the operating system of choice for many people when it comes to desktop computing. Microsoft also has a large market-share of the server-platform operating systems. Focused on streamlining usability, Microsoft trades efficiency and security for user-friendliness. Though Microsoft has been attempting to integrate UNIX philosophies into their operating systems, it has lacked the ability to do this successfully without sacrificing its business logic (UNIX and UNIX-based operating systems rely heavily on open-source programming and the consumer for fixing and reporting on bugs, or programming errors).

The closest Microsoft has come to the integration of these philosophies is Windows Longhorn. Unfortunately, while trying to get Longhorn to market, Microsoft cut many of the UNIX-friendly features and implemented a tighter security scheme that resembles XP. This release was called Microsoft Vista. (Greene, 2004)

With these trade-offs, Microsoft actually alienated many PC users because of Vista’s obtrusive security implementation. This is a direct result of the heavy integration of Microsoft’s web-browser, Internet Explorer, into the operating system. This practice seems to go against every contemporary philosophy of what an operating system is.


Bell Labs, Inc. (n.d.), The Creation of the UNIX* Operating System. Retrieved June 10, 2009, from http://www.bell-labs.com/history/unix/

Greene, J. (2004, April 19). How Microsoft Is Clipping Longhorn [Electronic version]. Business Week, p. A1.

Singh, A. (2003), What is Mac OS X? Retrieved June 10, 2009, from http://osxbook.com/book/bonus/ancient/whatismacosx/arch_xnu.html