posted by Kroc on Thu 24th Aug 2006 20:26 UTC
IconGEOS managed to offer nearly all the functionality of the original Mac in a 1 MHz computer with 64 Kilobytes of RAM. It wasn't an OS written to run on a generic x86 chip on a moving hardware platform. It was written using immense knowledge of the hardware and the tricks one could use to maximise speed. Note: After a small break, here is another one of the articles for the Alternative OS contest.

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1. An Introduction to this article

As we take time to look at the grand variety of operating systems available, it shows us that there is no one right way to 'do it'. With hardware already a commodity, the way we interact with our computers is taken as a standard, and a given best-practice of design. The joy of alternative operating systems, is the variety of Computer ? Human interface models available.


Even now, the modern operating system is designed from the perspective of the engineer. Whilst actual human guinea-pig testing is done on new interfaces, it still does not make up the bulk of the design process. User involvement in design is almost an after-thought.

What we've come to accept as the standard way of interacting with a computer was cemented in the early days by the extremely knowledgeable and technical system engineers of the day, through a process of creating:

  1. What they felt was right
  2. What the limited hardware was capable of

So, for my article, I have decided to focus on an Operating System born in the early days of consumer-available 'WIMP' interfaces, on extremely restrictive hardware.

It is my belief that 'the restraint of hardware is the true muse of the software engineer'.
Good software does not come from being given unlimited resources; just take a look at the hardware requirements for modern PC games, for graphics that were reproducible (until recently) on a 300 MHz, 4 MB VRAM Playstation 2.

2. A Quick History of GEOS

The history surrounding GEOS and its implementation within hardware restraints unimaginable nowadays makes for the most interesting parts of the OS, rather than just the GUI itself. Below is a brief history of the Operating System, up to its heyday; where we'll then get into usage, screenshots and technical details :)

This history has been carefully gathered and researched through actual GEOS manuals, cited sources and websites.

When you think of the history of our modern day operating systems, they are either the works of individuals and volunteers based on technical ability and software beliefs, or the work of large corporations employing many programmers. Rarely is the history of an OS based in the vibrant gaming era of the 1980s.

The Graphical Environment Operating System was released in 1986, created by Berkeley Softworks: a small company start-up by serial entrepreneur Brian Dougherty. GEOS is a classic Mac like GUI running on Commodore 64 / 128 hardware, then later the Apple II, and PC.

Around 1980, Brian turned down a job at IBM to go join the games manufacturer Mattel, then maker of the Intellivision gaming system. Brian helped write games for the system for about a year, before leaving with other engineers to form Imagic, a very successful games company that rivalled Activision, before being wounded in the games industry crash of 1983. Whilst Imagic went under in 1986, Brian did not.

Dougherty formed Berkeley Softworks (later Geoworks), who in collaboration with a firm that made batteries, worked on a product for the airlines named "Sky Tray". The concept was a computer built into the backs of the seats, and Brian and his team would develop the OS for it.

GEOS was coded by Dougherty's elite team of programmers, who had cut their teeth on the very restricted Atari 2600 and Intellivision games consoles of the time (usually 4 KB RAM). However, after the OS had been written, airline deregulation mandated that all in-flight extras were to be trimmed down to save weight and fuel, culling the Sky Tray project.

With all that time put into an OS, Dougherty looked at the compatible (6502 Microprocessor-based) Commodore 64. A few changes were needed and the OS sprang to life on the affordable home computer, complimenting the powerful graphics capabilities of the machine with a GUI.

Even though Berkeley Softworks started out small, with only two salespeople, the new software proved very popular because of low price for the necessary hardware (and of course the capability of the OS). This was due in part to the aggressive pricing of the Commodore 64 as a games machine and home computer (With rebates, the C64 was going for as little as $100 at the time). This was in comparison to an atypical PC for $2000 (which required MS-DOS, and another $99 for Windows 1.0) or the venerable Mac 512K Enhanced also $2000.

In 1986, Commodore Business Machines announced the C-Model revision of the Commodore 64 in a new Amiga-like case (dropping the 'breadbox' look), and bundling GEOS in the US.

At its peak, GEOS was the second most widely used GUI, next to Mac OS, and the third most popular operating system (by units shipped) next to MS-DOS and Mac OS.

Table of contents
  1. "GEOS, Page 1"
  2. "GEOS, Page 2"
  3. "GEOS, Page 3"
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