Trivia Tuesday: All About Operating Systems

We've all got a favorite operating system, whether it helps us get things done or waste as much time as possible. But beyond the flashy graphics and apps, it's easy to lose sight of what an operating system really is, and why one seems 'better' or 'worse.' So we thought it'd be fun to put together some interesting facts and figures about operating systems to remind everyone of what they really are.

General Motors built the world's first OS, GM-NAA I/O, way back in 1956. It didn't do much, other than automatically running a series of programs, as soon as the previous was completed. Back in the day, that was advanced stuff, since the usual method tended to involve hanging punch-card programs on a clothes line and manually loading them into the computer, one after another. It's probably more like our modern concept of a 'kernel' than an operating system, since it only managed basic functions.

GM NAA I/O ran on an IBM 704, pictured above with a GM engineer

Unix, created by AT&T in 1969, remains very popular to this day. Even though it predated the PC, our modern concept of an OS was starting to take shape. Unix was really revolutionary for its time, and it didn't take long before it became the most popular OS in academic circles. Unix supported multi-tasking, a multi-user architecture, and a hierarchical file system, which made it a lot easier to store and find 'stuff.' Check out this awesome 'family tree' of Unix-like systems to get an idea of just how far-reaching its influence is.

Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, Unix pioneers

Not many companies actually build their own OS: Microsoft an exception to this rule.  Although Windows technically has roots in MS-DOS, which in turn has roots in Q-DOS, which Microsoft acquired from Seattle Computer Products in the early '80s, Microsoft has done most of the work and development on their own. Apple's OS X, for instance, can be traced all the way back to Unix, and so can iOS, which is just a streamlined, touch-friendly version of OS X. Yes, your iPad probably does have some 40 year old code in it. That's not to ignore the achievements of other OSes - even standing on the shoulders of the systems that came before them, Linux and OS X have come a long way from their roots.

Seattle Computer Products was shipping CPU boards almost 2 years before IBM entered the PC market

There's a ton of 'em: You probably interact with a lot more operating systems than you realize. Even your router and TV are running their own operating systems. There's some sort of OS behind most digital devices, from CD players to traffic lights.

We wanted to give you a better idea of how many OSes there are, but there's just too many

Microsoft HomeOS is exactly what it sounds like: a project to build an operating system for the home. It's being developed by Microsoft Research with the idea of tying together all the systems that make your home tick, in order to make things run even more smoothly than they run on their own. UOS, or the Urban Operating System, is a similar project with a bigger scope. It's designed to run whole cities, tying together everything from traffic sensors to emergency services to create a 'smart city.'

HomeOS is based on Windows, and the test version only cost about $350 to set up

SLOC, or Source Lines of Code is a unit used to measure the 'size' of a program by counting the lines of code in its source code, the raw guts that make software tick. For example, Windows 3.1, released in 1993, is estimated to have contained somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million SLOC. By 2001, Windows XP was packing 45 million SLOC. We don't have any figures for Windows Vista or 7, but you can imagine that they're even bigger. OS X Tiger, released back in 2004, was packing 86 million SLOC, according to Steve Jobs, and Debian 5.0, from 2009, had a whopping 340 million SLOC.

Speaking of code, Dennis Ritchie, one of the guys behind Unix, also designed the C programming language

Images via Wikipedia, Microsoft, Tech Digest, and University of London Department of Computer Science and XCF Casa
Abstract Code image by Shutterstock

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16 Comments

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LOL -- my first "OS" was a push button on the console of a Burroughs B300. It started the program load from the punched-card reader.

x9_ said,
Windows NT isn't based on MS-DOS at all. It has more in common with OpenVMS than MS-DOS.

Indeed. Windows began as a presentation manager that ran on top of DOS, but had to be rebuilt from scratch for the NT project. The Windows we use today followed the latter path. It's more accurate to say NT "has Windows in common" with DOS.

x9_ said,
Windows NT isn't based on MS-DOS at all. It has more in common with OpenVMS than MS-DOS.

I said it had 'roots' in DOS, which it does - historically there's been a certain amount of overlap, and DOS sort of 'gave birth' to Windows. It's come a long way since then, but that was the origin.

It's a shame projects like HomeOS and UOS rile up the paranoid who run in circles screaming the gubment's watching their toaster.

Joshie said,
It's a shame projects like HomeOS and UOS rile up the paranoid who run in circles screaming the gubment's watching their toaster.

Tinfoil hat, secured.

The Gubment IS spying on me through my toaster!!!!

Joshie said,
It's a shame projects like HomeOS and UOS rile up the paranoid who run in circles screaming the gubment's watching their toaster.
Because the government is out to only do good for the people. Right...

KCRic said,
Because the government is out to only do good for the people. Right...

The government is not a hive mind. It's made up of people with different intentions and motivations. Saying "the government wants" is as ignorant and unproductive as a politician saying "the American people want" (one of my personal pet peeves and a very dangerous, irresponsible drinking game if you need to wake up for work the next day). Believing government has an inherent character only serves to make people feel better when they don't vote or otherwise participate.

But all of that is moot. HomeOS and UOS aren't government projects, which was a big part of what I was making fun of in my post. That you'd respond by taking it in a hard government direction only betrays that you're the sort of person my mockery covers.

Except that SLOC is about the most useless metric a software project can have. It was arguably good back when systems had strict line by line input. Now, for C alone there are ten different conventions on actual and logical lines, and some don't even bother at all.

"Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight."
- Bill Gates

"If we wish to count lines of code, we should not regard them as lines produced but as lines spent."
- Edsger Dijkstra

Phouchg said,
Except that SLOC is about the most useless metric a software project can have. It was arguably good back when systems had strict line by line input. Now, for C alone there are ten different conventions on actual and logical lines, and some don't even bother at all.

"Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight."
- Bill Gates

"If we wish to count lines of code, we should not regard them as lines produced but as lines spent."
- Edsger Dijkstra


Yeah I agree. Source file size is how I measure it.

Phouchg said,
...

Honestly, I didn't intend to say that it was inferior because of having a higher SLOC; the idea was just to show how the programs had grown, and I thought it was just an interesting piece of trivia to include here, regardless of its importance. That's the point, isn't it?

THolman said,
...

Yes, sorry. I didn't intend to attack you, I'm just being angry at the world. Too many take arbitrary, indeed, trivial numbers like lines, includes, modules and solutions really seriously.