The Death of GEOS?

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.

I have an original “Working” version of the GeoWorks trial from Comdex many years ago, I purchased GeoWorks 1.0, 1.2 (the one with Borland Quattro Pro because the PC/GEOS native spreadsheet wasn’t quite ready), GeoWorks Ensemble 2.0 and 2.1 (with the native spreadsheet), several versions of PC/GEOS from NewDeal and the latest version of PC/GEOS known as Breadbox Ensemble Add to this donations from PC/GEOS fans, trips to surplus software stores and garage sales and I’d venture to bet I have one of the most complete PC/GEOS collections available.

If the computer press made a difference then we’d all be using PC/GEOS today because in the early days of DOS and the first few versions of Windows the consensus was PC/GEOS (known commercially as GeoWorks) offered a “better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows”.

As an aside, note that the original GEOS (Graphical Environment Operating System) was originally written for the Apple II and Commodore 64/128 computers by Berkeley SoftWorks founded by Brian Doughtery which later became GeoWorks Corporation. These versions were met with both praise and criticism from the press, praise for the amazing functionality available within the extremely limited memory and processor speeds of the day and criticism because of the need to swap disks, the only practical way to offer a robust suite of WYSIWG tools on such limited platforms. The Apple version of GEOS (a.k.a. Apple GEOS) is available from Breadbox Computer Company as a free, unsupported download, and the Commodore version of GEOS is available from the Commodore copyright holder Click Here Software.

But back to PC/GEOS. It has served as the underlying operating system/GUI (a unique distinction as PC/GEOS requires an underlying operating system to handle file input/output (some variation of DOS) for a number of hardware form factors including IBM computers intended for consumers (PS/1), Hewlett-Packard (OmniGo) and Casio hand-held computers, Brother GeoBook products, Nokia smart-phones and low-cost, educational and home based computers.

Despite this long legacy, I fear that PC/GEOS is close to death and I’m not the only one who thinks so. One of Yahoo’s most overlooked resources is their “Groups” functionality, think a more friendly version of IRC (internet relay chat) or Google Groups (Usenet). The most active group I’ve found following PC/GEOS is GEOS-Talk on Yahoo! Groups founded by Byron Collins, another long-time PC/GEOS fanatic.

Up until the last year, the last two years posts on GEOS-Talk were filled with comments, ideas, users sharing tips about getting PC/GEOS to run using DOSBox, DOSEmu on Linux systems, application hints, and most important, ideas for growing, expanding and suggestions for the current owners of PC/GEOS, Breadbox Computer Company for how they can expand, grow and profit from this admittedly old/archaic technology while bringing it into the modern computer age.

Unfortunately the posts have all but dried up and more important, support has turned to criticism, bitterness, despair and (mostly half-hearted, unrealistic) offers to purchase the software from the existing copyright owners (Breadbox Computer Corporation).

Another aside. PC/GEOS, or more importantly “Ensemble” which are the productivity applications bundled with PC/GEOS are still impressive productivity applications that provide a lot of punch for the extremely limited system requirements needed for PC/GEOS. While they lack compatibility with the latest file formats, Ensemble applications can still compete with the likes of KOffice, Microsoft Works, Gnome Office and other office suites.

The current copyright holders (Breadbox Computer Corporation) believe the future is to position PC/GEOS as an educationally focused OS for low powered portable computers particularly for emerging computer markets in second and third world countries, not unlike the OLCP educational computers. To this end Breadbox Computer Company has provided free utilities to assist in the creation of educational content.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a disconnect between GEOS-Talk participants (and by extension PC/GEOS fanatics and users) and Breadbox Computer Corporation. Breadbox has received little educational content despite offering free software to the “community” to assist in the creation of educational content, while PC/GEOS users appear to be getting more upset at the lack of any progress regarding PC/GEOS over the last 10 years.

To Breadbox Computer’s credit, they released approximately a year ago a revision to the software that allows it to run reliably on faster machines, but on the other hand getting it to run natively under Windows XP is a challenge and pretty much impossible (without third party solutions such as DOSBox for example) under Vista or Windows 7 (more as a result of these operating systems eliminating support for legacy DOS/Windows functionality than any limitation of PC/GEOS).

Remember, the biggest limitation of PC/GEOS is that it requires an underlying operating system to provide file input/output operations. Could PC/GEOS have provided these functions natively and thus not require a 3rd party operating system? Could PC/GEOS have embraced Unix or Linux to provide these services “behind the scenes”? Could PC/GEOS have been bundled with other technologies such as DOSBox?

The members of GEOS-Talk have provided a number of creative suggestions but the majority of these suggestions appear to have fallen upon deaf ears. A common refrain from the current copyright owners has been, we tried that, didn’t work, not interested.

As a proof of concept, several fans have created portable drives using a combination of DOSBox and Breadbox Ensemble to create a cross platform PC/GEOS environment that can run on Windows and the Mac (and with a little more effort Linux) but the PC/GEOS aren’t interested in the “portable drive” concept.

Others have suggested a small “Pogoplug”, “black box” or other type of “appliance” that can be attached to an existing monitor/LCD, keyboard and mouse for $100 or less (very realistic).

And others have begged the current PC/GEOS owners to update the technology by either creating an underlying I/O system that doesn’t require another operating system such as DOS, or at least update the system to take advantage of advances in Linux hardware and software compatibility to serve as the underlying OS if necessary.

A common thread on GEOS-Talk is “build it and they will come”. Maybe this is too harsh a criticism, or at least unrealistic as it’s not the community’s money that is spend on R&D.

The current copyright holders appear to have the opinion that “we’ll build it when they come”. This is certainly an oversimplification on my part, but I too have been frustrated by the lack of progress related to PC/GEOS over the last several years.

I’ve personally created a cross-platform PC/Mac version of Breadbox Ensemble to run using DOSBox from a thumb drive and I’ve written about and assisted others in the the process at GEOS-Talk. I’ve authored an article here at about getting Breadbox Ensemble running under eComStation (the successor to OS/2) and I’ve suggested several strategies to the folks at Breadbox Computer Company, including creating a network appliance strategy to attach to existing peripherals such as monitor, keyboard and mouse, as well as suggestions for a less expensive “cut down” version of PC/GEOS for those DIY types who want an easy to use, GUI-based shell to manage legacy DOS games (a growing market), those who need to recover/archive data from DOS applications, and those who may still be using DOS applications for inventory, accounting, or other uses and haven’t ever ported their applications to Windows.

Unlike some, I don’t believe that all software should be free or open source and I’d like to see the folks at Breadbox make a dime off their investment (something that unfortunately no other company has been able to do). But I also believe that it would be a shame for technology that at one point presented a real threat to the Microsoft juggernaut to die a slow, painful death for no good reason, particularly when other office suites, other operating systems, less capable technology, more complex technology and most important, less intuitive software enjoys a long, prosperous life while PC/GEOS dies.

Ironically, this year is the 25th anniversary of PC/GEOS and a year or so ago there was a lot of talk on GEOS-Talk about a grand celebration of PC/GEOS this year with hints from Breadbox Computer that there may be new developments, a lot of creative ideas about how to Breadbox might profit from this excellent technology, end user advancement of the cause getting PC/GEOS to run under Linux, Unix, Breadbox and other operating systems and even new applications and utilities written for the platform.

Unfortunately today, there is a mood of dejection, disappointment and frustration on GEOS-Talk (and within the community as I correspond with others privately). No 25th anniversary celebration. No 32 bit version of Breadbox Ensemble (promised roughly 10 years ago). No update of the Breadbox Computer Company website. No new press releases. No new updates to the software. No new Linux host versions of the software. No new DOSBox based versions of the software. No discounts on the list price ($99.00 list, which is considerably more than the hardware than it runs on is worth today) and most important, a clear hostility by the current copyright holders to even consider open-sourcing the technology as a last ditch effort of saving this technology from the computing dust bin.

So this is a call out to the smart readers at to offer your own suggestions, opinions and comments. Is PC/GEOS too far gone? Is it too late for PC/GEOS? Would open sourcing the technology encourage new development as some have proposed? Should this 25 year old technology survive? Is there some way for the copyright holders to leverage the technology and profit from it? Is the portable, educational device market the best chance for this technology? Is there really too small a market of legacy DOS gamers and would they be unwilling to pay $20 or $30 dollars on what would be an awesome “shell” to manage DOS games? Is DOS really (really!) dead and there isn’t any market for an awesome DOS GUI and productivity suite?

The SDK is available for free from Breadbox’s website. Would readers/programmers be willing to take a look, kick out a quick app and program for the platform? Would a better infrastructure for third party applications (if PC/GEOS got it’s platform act together) which included an “app store” better e-commerce, better website, etc.) improve the situation?

All comments, suggestions, etc. welcome. And happy, or not so happy 25th anniversary PC/GEOS depending upon your perspective.



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