Good Idea/Bad Idea

Good Idea/Bad Idea Looks at Operating Systems

Dan Knight - 2002.11.27

In the beginning of personal computing, there were no operating systems, for there was almost nothing to operate on. Then came floppy drives and controllers, creating the need for Apples and Ataris and TRS-80s and the like to communicate with random access media.

Each brand had its own OS: Apple DOS, TRS-DOS, and so forth. And then came CP/M, a standard OS that computers designed around the 8080, Z80, and 8085 could use. And it was good.

Then came the IBM PC with three OS alternatives: CP/M-86, the UCSD p-System, and something from Microsoft called PC-DOS.

Today Good Idea/Bad Idea looks at what happens when users choose operating systems.

Good Idea

IBM didn't think much of the PC industry in those days and fully expected their 5150 to fail, so they did all they could to keep development costs down. They used an existing Intel CPU (a 16-bit one crippled for an 8-bit bus) and other off the shelf parts, which also paved the way for clones.

And, rather than create their own OS, IBM gave users a choice. They could choose CP/M-86, the logical outgrowth of the industry standard 8-bit CP/M. Or they could choose the OS of academia, the UCSD p-System. Or they could choose the upstart OS, which was cleverly named PC-DOS and sold for a lot less than the alternatives.

The rest is history. Microsoft's DOS became the de facto standard, and today Microsoft operating systems run about 90% of the world's personal computers.

Success: MS-DOS. 'Nuff said.

Success: Microsoft Windows, especially since version 3.1.

Bad Idea

Competing with the industry standard operating system.

Failure: CP/M was the first casualty of the success of the IBM PC and Microsoft's DOS.

Failure: All of the other 8-bit computers and their operating systems. Only the Apple IIGS managed a slightly successful transition to the 16-bit world, but it was too little too late.

Failure: The UCSD p-System.

Failure: Digital Research's CP/M-86 and the multiuser MP/M-86.

Failure: Digital Research's DR-DOS, mostly due to fallacious error messages generated by the Microsoft Windows 3.1 installer claiming Windows was not compatible with DR-DOS.

Failure: OS/2, initially a joint project of IBM and Microsoft to create a next generation OS to replace DOS. Microsoft took what it learned, applied it to Windows, and left IBM with a great OS that failed in the marketplace.


Throughout this period, Unix has persisted, the Mac OS has become the leading desktop alternative to Windows, and Linux is the leading alternative OS for industry standard hardware. Between them, these operating systems account for maybe 10% of the entire personal computer market.

As Digital Research and IBM discovered, you cannot compete directly with Microsoft; they will roll over and crush you. The Mac OS remains viable because it runs on proprietary hardware. Linux is viable primarily because it is free, does not require proprietary hardware, and gives tech types a stable, viable, open source, virtually free alternative to Windows. LEPC

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