Linked by Michael Hill on Thu 7th Oct 2010 14:59 UTC
OSNews, Generic OSes This is a painful article to write. I've been a longtime fan and user of what is affectionately known as PC/GEOS over the years. However, I'm fearing we're nearing the end of GEOS.
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Comments from a former GEOS Developer
by edwdig on Fri 8th Oct 2010 05:26 UTC
edwdig
Member since:
2005-08-22

I was heavily involved in GEOS development around '96-'02. When I stopped working on it, I was one of the last people hanging on to it. The story told in this article is no different than the story told back in '02, and is why I stopped working on it.

On the GUI vs OS issue - GEOS uses DOS calls to read and write the filesystem. This is done for compatibility - it made it much easier for the software to coexist with DOS and Windows installs. There is a proper filesystem driver interface in place and it shouldn't be hard for someone to write a driver that replaces the DOS system calls with direct disk access. It's never been done because there's no benefit to doing it. Most distributions of GEOS were actually used in embedded systems and shipped with an embedded DOS distribution tailored for it, so you're really grasping at straws to say it's not an operating system.

When looking at the overall picture, there's one key point to remember in all of this. The entire operating system and all of the original applications are written in 16 bit assembly. The vast majority is 8086 compatible. Some of the newer code requires a 286 processor. The only 32 bit code in the entire system is a few memory copy loops in kernel's memory management system - and that's only a build option, not a requirement. So to do any serious work on modernizing the system, you'd have to rewrite the code in a higher level language and completely rework the kernel.

The "we'll build it when they come" attitude is a practical issue. You're talking about an investment of millions of dollars to modernize the core system, and probably tens of millions to modernize the applications. Those are likely low estimates. Those kind of projects don't happen on the chance that someone will want it when you're done.

When it comes to open sourcing the code, there are significant legal issues preventing that. Some are simple - removing some licensed data compression code from the help viewer or removing the spell check engine. Some are hard, like stripping out the font system. Others are a complete nightmare, such as the user interface situation. All the different UIs GEOS supported were built from one shared codebase with build flags to handle the differences. The problem is there's a lot of companies with rights in the process, and it's all intertwined. The core of the UI is the most complicated part of the GEOS code, and you'd need someone intimately familiar with it to sort through the mess. There's not many people that can do it, and of those people, you'd probably have to pay them very well to convince them to sort through a giant 20 year old assembly codebase.

Regarding 3rd party development - the big issue was always memory management. The OS did preemptive multitasking, and every application was multithreaded by default. To make that work with a 640 KB heap meant very complicated memory management, which scared away most people. You'd need a full 32 bit - or really 64 bit at this point - rewrite of the core system to get anyone to consider development.

Reply Score: 5

mjhi11 Member since:
2009-08-15

It's good to hear from an insider. I mean no disrespect in my comments regarding it not being a true operating system, more that I want to make it very clear to the readers that as it exists now it isn't an independent operating system and thus it still requires some compatible flavor of DOS.

So to one of your points, Breadbox claims they're making progress on a "32 bit" version of the software but we've heard that for several years now.

I suspect that funding the development is the major challenge which goes to the paradox I present...some say build it and they will come while Breadbox says we'll build it when they come.

All seem agreed, Breadbox personnel included that to serve up an acceptable, modern web browser experience PC/GEOS must be 32 bit (at least).

So in your opinion since you have real-world, working knowledge of the underpinnings, is this realistic? Is it achievable? And is it worth even doing recognizing that it may go faster to simply try and "recreate" the PC/GEOS experience (GUI look and feel, productivity apps, etc.) using modern tools on a more modern operating system base as Linux (though it's ironic to call Unix/Linux a more modern operating base since the technologies are now decades old!).

So to your point, isn't it somewhat of a "fools game" to even continue to invest in the platform as the most vocal Breadbox critics suggest?

For example, Apple took BSD, wrapped it in the Aqua interface, created GUI based utilities, tools and applications over a several year period and it now serves as the base for their operating system for many years to come into the future.

I guess to cut to the chase, wouldn't it make more sense for Breadbox to do something similar as Apple versus expending the effort to rewrite PC/GEOS into 32 bits?

My personal opinion is a "hybrid" type of strategy is the most practical (and ironically a return to the original GeoWorks model, a shell/productivity suite running on top of another operating system) whether that's in a DOSBox type of environment or DOSEmu/Linux type of environment.

I welcome your thoughts, opinions, etc.

Reply Parent Score: 1

edwdig Member since:
2005-08-22

It's good to hear from an insider. I mean no disrespect in my comments regarding it not being a true operating system, more that I want to make it very clear to the readers that as it exists now it isn't an independent operating system and thus it still requires some compatible flavor of DOS.


Right, I understand. I just wanted to make it clear though that there's no technical reason it has to be like that. If a market opportunity popped up that required the DOS requirement to dissappear, it could happen very quickly.


So to one of your points, Breadbox claims they're making progress on a "32 bit" version of the software but we've heard that for several years now.


I'd guess its mostly planning out what they'd do if various opportunities arose.

There was some work done about 10 years ago to replace the kernel's memory manager with something that hooked into DOS4GW. It would have expanded the heap a lot, had very few compatibility issues, and maintained compatibility with the existing WinNT development environment. It would've been a stopgap solution though that probably would've bought a few years before it became limiting. I think it got to a point where the system was usable for about 10 minutes or so before it would crash.

I suspect that funding the development is the major challenge which goes to the paradox I present...some say build it and they will come while Breadbox says we'll build it when they come.


Remember, Breadbox is a tiny company. They traditionally made their money doing contract work for companies releasing GEOS based products. Rewriting an OS is a massive project. They won't be able to do anything significant without a massive outside investment.

All seem agreed, Breadbox personnel included that to serve up an acceptable, modern web browser experience PC/GEOS must be 32 bit (at least).


Without JavaScript, the browser was kinda pushing the limits of the system. When they tried adding it, things got unusably slow.

So in your opinion since you have real-world, working knowledge of the underpinnings, is this realistic?


Nothing's happening without a 7 or 8 digit amount of funding.

Is it achievable?


Depends on what the goal is. Breadbox had a small but *extremely* talented team. It's not a question of ability, it's about setting realistic goals and funding them.

And is it worth even doing recognizing that it may go faster to simply try and "recreate" the PC/GEOS experience (GUI look and feel, productivity apps, etc.) using modern tools on a more modern operating system base as Linux (though it's ironic to call Unix/Linux a more modern operating base since the technologies are now decades old!).


Those ideas have been tossed around. I've had conversations like that with the people who were most qualified to do the job. Every one of us had a different take on which parts were the important ones.

Personally, I loved the office apps 10-15 years ago, but at this point I feel they're so outdated that any attempt to modernize them would bear little similarity to the original products. I wouldn't prioritize them, but there are definitely key people that see the apps as the valuable part.

To me, the most value is in the UI code. The UI design was easily a decade ahead of its time, offering flexible layouts long before anything else did. I was able to design GEOS interfaces far faster than I can design something today in Java or .NET. So I'd care much more about keeping those layers of the system.

So to your point, isn't it somewhat of a "fools game" to even continue to invest in the platform as the most vocal Breadbox critics suggest?


Yup, that's pretty much the conclusion I came to right around the Breadbox got the rights to GEOS and released their own version. I don't think anything has happened since to change that.

I guess to cut to the chase, wouldn't it make more sense for Breadbox to do something similar as Apple versus expending the effort to rewrite PC/GEOS into 32 bits?


If anything happens, yeah, it'll become a UI layer over Linux or something similar. That's the only realistic option. But you're still talking a total rewrite, as you've got a giant codebase of 16 bit assembly code written for a segmented memory model.

It's a ton of work, and you can probably count on your fingers the number of developers that are familiar enough with the core system to recreate it. And then keep in mind that they haven't worked on it significantly in almost a decade.

Reply Parent Score: 2

breadbox Member since:
2010-10-09

hi Ed....good to see you. btw...Ed was one of our *extremely* talented programmers.

hi Michael....good to see you too.

hi folks....my name is Frank Fischer and I'm the President & CEO of Breadbox Computer Company, LLC. I'm not a programmer, I'm a businessman. I barely passed the one programming class I was forced to take in college and that was when we were still using punch cards. I couldn't program my way out of a paper bag, then or now. However, I love programmers. I also hate them. It's a love-hate relationship :-) I know how to price out a software development project to make it profitable and I think I'm pretty good at it. I know that when I ask our guys for a time estimate to get a project done, and they, with all good intentions, tell me it'll take 100 hours. I know it'll take 300 hours. Breadbox is still alive and has been around since 1992. We're the only Geos-related company left standing. We're the keepers of the Geos flame. Having said that, let me address some of Michael's concerns.

First, I'd like to say that I share in Michael's frustration with regards to our inability to currently move Geos forward. But, is Geos dead? No, far from it. Some may disagree and everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Second, I believe Ed has articulated accurately what it takes to get things done and make things happen. Money, lots of it. A resource we currently don't enjoy. Michael, I think you know that's the case as I've honestly explained this time and time again to our dedicated users on the Yahoo email list Geos-talk, both publicly and privately.

Michael's done a great job with his Geos-Central web site and we support him 100%. Regarding not having a banner to provide you, that's true, we don't. But I believe I offered you our logo to do with what you want. It's been a while so I could be wrong, but it's available. Regarding the DOS shell you wanted create and offer for sale, we were/are behind you 100%, at no cost to you for whatever efforts we needed to put into it. Regretfully, as you know, we were/are missing some splash-screen code we needed to make it happen. One of our other talented programmers that created it has since lost it. That shouldn't be the case as we have procedures and safeguards and backups of all of our code, but somehow this slipped through the cracks. Shame on us. It takes time, effort and knowledge to re-create and so far we haven't been able to find the time to make it happen. My apologies. This is not a project we would have developed ourselves, nor do I believe we will be reaping any windfall profits from it, if any at all. We were doing it to support your efforts as a thank you for your continued support of Breadbox and Geos. We appreciate it.

As far as a 32 bit Geos, as I've mentioned dozens of times before, we've made some progress and continue to do so, time and money permitting. Please re-read Ed's post to see what it takes. I've tried to articulate this for a long time, but for some reason I'm not getting through. Like I said, we're as frustrated, if not more, than you. We had resources at one time, but we didn't own Geos at that time. We've blown our wad on legal fees with the GlobalPC fiasco and purchasing Geos from the now defunct Geoworks. However, we've kept Geos alive as a result. It very well may have died if we hadn't stepped up to the pump and taken an enormous risk. If you read my recent post on Geos-talk, you know we haven't legally and officially owned Geos until 2008. We purchased it in 2003. We haven't been working on Geos32 for 10 years as many seem to be claiming these days. Either way, we're doing the best we can with the resources we have. We too have to eat and pay the bills. Sales of our Breadbox Ensemble desktop suite doesn't do it for us.

Regarding the suggestions and ideas we get from various users, you're right, for the most part. We've been at this game for nearly 20 years. We have experience with a lot of the suggestions we receive. If we've done it before and it doesn't work, why would we do it again? Knowing our lack of resource situation as I've explained it dozens of time, we still get suggestions and ideas that cost money we don't have. Yet when I respond accordingly, folks get pissed off. Your idea about the little black box may be a good one. I don't know, we've never tried it. But how can we? You know we can't afford it. Unless someone wants to risk perhaps a few hundred thousand $$ to invest or joint-venture with us to build, test, re-test, debug, re-test, debug, re-test, manufacture, inventory, market, advertise, sell and provide customer support for the idea or suggestion, we can't do it. We're not blowing off anyone as many suggest we are.

The same thing applies to the continued suggestion of making Geos open source. It's a suggestion, one I don't agree with, but I've yet to receive or see anyone provide a valid business model where open source works for Breadbox. Like I said, we've been at this for nearly 20 years and have a ton of money and thousands of man hours invested in it. We finally own Geos now and saved it from total obscurity (IMO). Yet I'm continually "pounded and hammered" by several users, some of which have never purchased anything from us, demanding that we make it open source! This has been going on for years! When I disagree, for the 5000th time, somehow I'm labeled an insulting jerk working against our user base. Incredible.

Regarding upgrading the software, we've made many improvements to the Geos OS and desktop since we purchased Geos. You pointed out one major improvement we made which enables it to run on fast CPUs. We've made that fix freely available from our web site. There are many other improvements we've made and we're up to version 4.13. We've provided a couple of white papers on our web site to explain, in detail, how to get Geos running under XP, Vista, Win7. We still don't support USB, but we've provided a good, relatively simple and free work-around so folks are able to print from Geos to a USB printer.

Contrary to popular belief, the Yahoo group are not our only customers. Far from it. We continue to sell our products to many customers from all over the world. Even with our limited resources, we support our products, at no cost to the user. You have no idea how many support emails, phone calls, letters, faxes, etc., we receive from existing and potential customers. Each one takes time, sometimes a lot of time, and is handled accordingly to the satisfaction of the customer. And if we can't solve the problem, we provide a 100% refund. I'm mentioning this because it directly relates to product and marketing ideas and suggestions we receive. Support costs time and money and we provide the best as far as I'm concerned. I'm not going to jeopardize our reputation or our ability to properly support a product, or even an idea, if we can't afford it.

Lastly, we believe we're headed in the right direction regarding the educational market. It's a niche that fits and works for us. We've developed a lot of good, solid educational software and combined with our desktop productivity apps, PIMs, many of our internet clients, etc., we've got a package that has no competition. Contrary to your comment about not being able to attract any hardware companies, that's just not true and I've elaborated about it on Geos-talk. We just haven't made a breakthrough yet, although we've been very close. We're still currently working with one company. I think you know that.

Anyway, I apologize for my long-winded response, but I wanted to clarify a few things and assure you that Geos is not dead.

If anyone is interested in investing about $2 million in Breadbox to help us achieve our goals, I'd be more than happy to discuss it with you.

best,

Frank

Reply Parent Score: 1

mjhi11 Member since:
2009-08-15

Frank, I appreciate your reply here and I'm sure that the OSNews.com readers do too, and brevity isn't necessarily an advantage!

I regret advancing the claim that 32 Bit PC/GEOS was promised 10 years ago and after your most recent posts wish I could have gone back and corrected the original article but at best the revision might read "several years" without concrete personal knowledge of when that effort was started.

That said it's been well known for at least 10 years or more that due to the current 16 bit memory limitations of PC/GEOS, it cannot host an even semi-modern web browsing experience.

I've tried with my article to present both sides of the debate, with at least some element of fairness.

The question mark in the title "The Death of GEOS?" was intentional, to express my own doubt whether the premise is true or not.

With that said, your reply here leaves at least a little doubt about the future of the desktop version of PC/GEOS.

Maybe that's the distinction, GEOS may in fact live on, bundled with hardware targeted to the educational market, but as an advancing, improving desktop operating system the future does indeed look bleak.

You'll recall in my posts that I've argued against the "free software movement" as I too respect the efforts of programmers and don't want to see their efforts devalued...we all have families to care for.

Again, in the spirit of fairness, I've defended quite vocally Breadbox's right to profit on the GEOS-Talk board, and any software company's right to profit, here at OSNews.com too as I personally believe that the free software movement devalues the effort of brilliant programmers who deserve to profit from their considerable knowledge, experience and efforts.

Of course, if a programmer chooses to work uncompensated I support their right to do so as well and appreciate the many hours of labor spent advancing technology.

On the other hand, open-source doesn't necessarily mean "free" and there are many successful open source projects where companies have profited from an open source development model.

In regards to Breadbox's self-admitted limited resources, funding and staff available to advance PC/GEOS, I think there's at least a little merit to the suggestion from those who "sincerely" want to see PC/GEOS not only survive but thrive.

You and Breadbox of course have the right to reject the suggestion but I believe there's some merit to the idea and sought independent feedback from the folks here at OSNews.com. As I hope was clear in the article, I have no patience for trolls on the GEOS-Talk board who simply want something for free.

Also note that I didn't include our DOS shell discussions, banner discussion in the main article on purpose as this was more an attempt to present a somewhat "fair" analysis of the situation.

With that said, I brought these issues up (which is why they didn't belong in the article) in a reply to a comment post-article to illustrate at least my personal frustration to quote a line from Jerry McGuire, "help me, help you".

Many, many of the suggestions that true fans of PC/GEOS have made require little expense and in some cases just a little effort. A common frustration shared on GEOS-Talk and in private conversations with other PC/GEOS users is one of missed opportunities, time and again.

A modern redesign of the Breadbox.com website for example is something that can be done for little or no expense and something that can be done rather easily using (ironically) open-source tools such as Joomla, Drupal or other another content management system.

This would not only indicate to existing customers that Breadbox is growing or at least advancing but more important a modern, attractive, easy to navigate website can help to attract venture capitalists and investors. It's a confidence thing, if a company takes pride in the most important connection to customers and investors, then that breeds confidence in Breadbox as a company.

In addition a well-designed website can REDUCE the amount of technical support you provide to existing customers. And an easy, intuitive purchasing process might actually increase sales.

Regular "blog postings" would give customers (and the community) confidence that things are "advancing" and more important drive new hits on the site thus increasing Breadbox's technology visibility and maybe even attract investors. If there's nothing new, reference an article from geoscentral.com or search the web as I do for anything related to GEOS. Each new article brings new visitors to the site and can be done "for free" and with little more than a few minutes effort each week.

And if you do meet with a hardware manufacturer, talk to an investor or even attend a trade show, then write about that. You don't have to disclose the potential partner, just show other investors (and the community) that PC/GEOS and Breadbox is active! Activity breeds interest, interest can turn into investment.

Continue to spend just a little effort improving the current product. There's a known bug in the DOS launching capabilities that prevents you from changing an icon after it's been saved. Fix it, announce it. If you have a work-around, at least capture a FAQ to let customers know how to work around a limitation.

Distributing the existing PC/GEOS version in a new form, whether that's a pre-built VirtualBox, VMware Fusion or Parallels virtual drive is another "virtually free" way of expanding PC/GEOS's footprint and potential market and would only require a little time.

Distributing the existing PC/GEOS version on a thumb drive using DOSBox or similar emulation technology is another "low cost" strategy. This configuration could be targeted at parents and schools as "GEOS for Kids" or "GEOS for DOS Legacy Gamers".

Time and again a common strategy by many businesses is to "re-package" the same product, just in different ways, thus attracting a different buyer, or demonstrate a "broad line" of products when in fact it's really just the same product behind the scenes. Why do companies do this? To maximize their investment in the current product and minimize the costs associated with attracting new customers.

But that leads to one of the most important criticism of Breadbox Ensemble, and that is price. It's become a self-fulfilling prophecy...the price is high because people don't buy, people don't buy because the price is too high".

Do I believe that a 50% reduction or even 80% reduction in price will result in millions of new sales, no which I assume is the argument for keeping the pricing as is.

But even the biggest supporters of PC/GEOS agree that its a rather steep price to pay for 25 year old technology that has been improved minimally over the last 25 years, particularly since the development of the shareware movement in the 80s and 90s, and the free software movement in the 90s and turn of the century and most important the incredible competition and success of Linux, OpenOffice, KDE Office and other open source projects and availability of low cost software over the last several years.

I too apologize for my long winded reply. My intentions are pure and for both the community and Breadbox I hope there is some model that succeeds as the one thing that I know we both agree upon, PC/GEOS technology was and in many ways is still today a special, revolutionary product and it would be a shame for it to in fact die.

Edited 2010-10-09 15:31 UTC

Reply Parent Score: 1

Kroc Member since:
2005-11-10

We continue to sell our products to many customers from all over the world.

Hello Frank, awesome to have you comment here. PC/GEOS has always been famous for being fast on low-end hardware, it ran circles around Windows 95. There must be potential demand around the world for old computers on limited hardware that Windows simply can’t serve and if GEOS could run with that it could have a future for years to come.

I wish you all the best.

Reply Parent Score: 1