Digital Research and the GEM OS- The Other “Windows”

One of the early GUI operating systems for the PC, that is still being developed today, is GEM, an operating system that was originally created by Digital Research in the early 1980s. GEM was described as providing a Mac like GUI for the PC – long before Microsoft Windows 3.1 or 95. Today GEM continues to be developed as FreeGEM and old and new versions of the GEM OS and GEM applications can be downloaded for free (see links below). The history of Digital Research and GEM is quite interesting, as GEM had the potential to become the “Windows” (or Mac) of the PC world.

Editorial notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

Digiral Research and CP/M

Digital Research was the company that developed CP/M for the early personal/home computers. Many computers that existed before the IBM PC used the CP/M operating system. CP/M was a text based operating system, similar to DOS, however, CP/M existed long before DOS. In fact, is appears that DOS used CP/M as a model. Of course, there are those who would point out that CP/M was modeled after unix.

When IBM was looking for an operating system for their soon to be introduced PC, CP/M was chosen. However, when IBM first approached Digital Research about using CP/M, the company’s founder, Gary Kildall, was out of the office for the day. With Gary gone, Kildall’s wife and business associates were reluctant to sign the stringent IBM nondisclosure agreement. The IBM representatives left Digital Research without ever explaining the reason for their visit. [note: various versions of the above story exist, but this seems to be the general consensus.]

IBM looked next to Microsoft, as they believed Microsoft had the rights to CP/M. Microsoft didn’t, but they didn’t tell IBM this. What they did have was knowledge of the Seattle Computer Company, which had developed QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System). They quickly made a deal, and sold the operating system to IBM. With this, DOS soon became the new standard. In response to DOS, Digital Research created DR-DOS (Digital Research DOS) to compete (DR-DOS continues on today). Although DR-DOS offered notable advantages, DOS became the standard, due to the IBM PC.

The GUI Concept: GEM

Around that time (the early 80s) most personal companies recognized that GUI based operating systems were the future. Apple was developing the Lisa computer, with its GUI operating system, which was released in 1983. With CP/M losing out, Digital research was also working on its next operating system, GEM.

GEM was first shown at a computer show in 1983. Although similar in concept to Windows 3.1, GEM was especially interesting is it was quite similar to the Lisa or Macintosh GUI, (or like Windows 95) in that it had a desktop, menus that pulled down from the top, windows, folders, a trash can, a calculator, and so on. Again, see the links below for examples of the original GEM and today’s version.

A few years back I talked to an computer specialist who told me he saw GEM running on a PC the mid 1980s. It made quite an impression on him. To him it was the Mac OS running on a PC. He said he was convinced that it was over for Windows. Windows 3.1 was still a few years away, and in his opinion, the current version of Windows (version 2?) was no match for GEM. He expected Windows to just “go away.”

Later versions of GEM were altered a bit, as Apple Computer thought GEM looked too much like the Mac GUI and took Digital Research to court. The trash icon was removed and a few other things were changed in later versions. Still, GEM continued to be developed for the PC, and various GEM applications, such as word processors and publishing software were created for it.

GEM did have notable sales. In fact, Tandy Computer sold GEM bundled with their PC. However, for whatever reason, Digital Research didn’t aggressively promote GEM. It may have been that they had problems getting applications developed for GEM (Microsoft had similar problems with their early versions of Windows). Or, Digital Research may have decided that people were too locked into DOS and DOS applications to consider switching to another operating system. Digital Research appears as to have decided to sell GEM where it could. Although GEM didn’t take the PC desktop, it appeared in other places. For instance, it was used as an interface for desktop publishing software.

GEM operating systems other computers (other than the PC). One of them was the Atari ST. Interestingly, that version of GEM had the trash can. Evidently, Apple didn’t see GEM on the Atari ST as a threat.

The first versions of GEM were designed to run on early and mid 1980s PCs, as such, GEM is a good option for running on low end PCs today. Original GEM files and applications, now abandonware, can be downloaded from here.

GEM Today: FreeGEM

That is not the end of GEM – GEM continues today. The company that took over ownership of GEM released it to the public. A number of developers took over GEM, and it continues to be developed and updated as FreeGEM. Information and downloads can be found here.

Other Sites of Interest

Screenshots of older GEM software can be seen here.

Other information on the original GEM can be found here.

About the Author:
Roger lives in Southern California, and is a bit of a computer Geek, owning both Mac and Windows computers. He enjoys experimenting with the various operating systems – such as running Atari ST emulators on his PC, and going to the beach, of course. Roger can be contacted at [email protected]


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