Timeline: 40 years of OS milestones

The biggest desktop OS moments since Unix made its debut

Lordy, lordy, look who's 40! Happy birthday, Unix -- you're looking great for your age. You certainly weren't the first operating system on any platform, but you managed to stride from the minicomputer era into the microcomputer era and the personal computer era, winning fans wherever you went. How many other operating systems can make the same boast?

With your birth as our starting point, then, let's look at the biggest desktop OS milestones of the past 40 years.


Unix was brought to life on a spare DEC PDP-7 at AT&T Bell Labs. When AT&T decided to abandon the Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service) operating system on its minicomputers, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie cobbled together an operating system so they could continue to play a space travel game that Thompson had developed. A colleague gave the system a jokey name based on Multics -- UNICS, the Uniplexed Information and Computing Service, which morphed into UNIX or Unix.


Intergalactic Digital Research's maverick brain Gary Kildall creates CP/M, a simple microcomputer operating system for simple microcomputers. It would be the model for command-line DOS variations for two decades.


The godfather of open source is born when the Computer Systems Research Group at UC Berkeley releases a variant on Unix called the Berkeley Software Distribution. BSD will ultimately spawn alternatives to some commercial microcomputer operating systems -- and form the core of at least one major commercial operating system, Mac OS X.

Tandy/Radio Shack introduces a line of affordable home computers, and debuts a family-friendly operating system called TRS-DOS with such Rated-M-for-Mature commands as KILL. Other companies' versions of DOS substitute the less menacing DEL command, for Delete.


Apple DOS 3.1 debuts; it will run the Apple II series of computers for the next five years.


The IBM PC is born, and so are PC-DOS and its alter ego, MS-DOS.


Free software advocate Richard Stallman announces the plan for GNU, a Unix-like operating system that contains no proprietary software. Twenty-six years later, GNU's official kernel, GNU Hurd, will still be incomplete.


During the Super Bowl, Apple airs a commercial in which a female athlete throws a sledgehammer through a huge screen displaying a stern Big Brother-like visage. In the ensuing chaos, people forget that there are more than two computing platforms and concentrate on the epic battle between DOS and the Macintosh.


Microsoft Windows 1.01 retails, at a list price of $99. It's marketed as a graphical user interface that extends the DOS operating system and lets users run several programs at the same time and freely switch among them. But it's not touted as an actual operating system until a decade later.

The Atari ST appears, running a color graphical user interface: GEM, from Digital Research, the people who brought us CP/M. Like Windows, GEM runs on top of a less attractive, command-line-driven operating system. It becomes a popular graphics and digital music platform, which gives Apple a few ideas to explore later.

A few months later, the Amiga appears. Its operating system is built on a kernel that handles preemptive multitasking, so it starts with an advantage. The OS also contains a disk operating system, an API layer called Intuition, and a graphical user interface called Workbench. People can choose at will between a command line and the Workbench graphical interface and seem pretty happy about it. It becomes a popular video platform, which gives Apple a few ideas to explore later.

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