Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Operating Systems From The 1990s


For most PC users, the only operating system they know of, apart from all the versions of Windows, is probably just MS-DOS. There’s quite a few more notable ones, such as this bunch of OS/2 diskettes I recovered while clearing out some stuff at home. It brings back some memories of how I’ve been using PCs over two decades ago.

I used OS/2 for a couple of years in the 1990s. Before that, I also used DESQview. Technically, DESQview is a multitasking environment, much like how VMware is a multitasking platform, not an operating system on its own. In those days, everyone used MS-DOS (or PC-DOS, a variant of MS-DOS).

Some people may have heard of OS/2, but I’d imagine DESQview is pretty much unheard of. DESQview enjoyed a small measure of success in the late 1980s bringing the capability of running multiple MS-DOS programs in the same computer. In those days, of course, there was no multitasking on PCs. There were TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) programs, which in MS-DOS, allowed pop-up utilities to remain available while you ran a primary MS-DOS program. It was a special case of running multiple programs simultaneously under MS-DOS, but not just any program.

DESQview, however, enabled any ordinary MS-DOS application to run simultaneously, each in their own on-screen window. It was text-mode only, although later versions did allow GUI applications to run in full-screen mode.

I jumped onto the multitasking bandwagon very early because I ran a BBS (i.e. Bulletin Board Service) in those days. Instead of dedicating an entire PC to run the BBS, multitasking solutions like DESQview allowed me to use the PC for other stuffs at the same time. I wasn’t going to buy a PC and only use it for the BBS. Computers weren’t so cheap in those days.

DESQview worked very well. It was made by Quarterdeck, the company behind QEMM (Quarterdeck Expanded Memory Manager 386), which in those days was needed to make use of memory beyond the 640K that MS-DOS could reach. MS-DOS users from those days will know QEMM.

DESQview didn’t become very popular. When Microsoft Windows appeared, it attracted many users. It had a new graphical user interface that many people loved. Many MS-DOS users happily converted to Microsoft Windows. Microsoft Windows, however, was too unreliable for me. I ran a BBS. A computer that crashes now and then just won’t do. It’s amazing in those days users put up with crashing computers.

Quarterdeck also had another product, DESQview/X, which brought a graphical user interface and windowing capabilities. For people familiar with X, DESQview/X actually did do X sort of things, so windows could be served across the network. It was really cool. It was too far ahead of its time, however, and DESQview/X didn’t catch on.

I subsequently switched to OS/2. It offered a far more robust multitasking environment than Windows did. It was originally developed jointly by both Microsoft and IBM, but Microsoft pulled out around when Windows 3.0 became a roaring success. Later, there were bitter operating system wars between Windows and OS/2, much like more recently between Windows and Apple’s OS X.

For the record, there were many other DOS-type operating systems, all sounding quite similar.

  • DR DOS
  • Concurrent DOS
  • Novell DOS

Then there are yet more that are not so like DOS:

  • Coherent

I haven’t forgotten Linux and the many Unixes available on PC computers. All (if not most) of them are still current. They are plenty more new kids on the block too, like Chrome OS, for example. I won’t write more about them in here, because my purpose in this post is really to look at the operating systems from old times.

OS/2 was really great, although its hey days lasted only a few short years. It was used for many mission critical applications from airline check-in systems to ATM machines. OS/2 had many advanced features for its day, such as speech recognition. Perhaps not quite Siri-esque, but certainly very impressive. Maybe in some similar ways to DESQview/X, OS/2 was too advanced for its time. It didn’t address the needs of majority users. It had become too complex and too complicated to sustain, and it didn’t catch up fast enough with the competition.

Alas, IBM pulled the plug after its final OS/2 release at the end of 2001.

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