Thursday, March 18, 2010

QNX turns 30! What was happening way back then?

Sometimes it's very fun to be taking a trip through memory lane.  With QNX turning 30 this year, I've been hauling old QNX manuals out of storage, conveniently archived just feet away from my desk, and doing a bit of research for some interesting tidbits to share for our birthday celebration.  Looking through all those old typewriter banged out manuals with the occasional white-out and hand-penned corrections brought back fond memories.

I wasn't using QNX back in those days.  I was programming in both BASIC and 6502 assembly on an Atari 800.  Writing my own games, truth be told, since I didn't have lots of spare cash on a paper route income.  And I was typing in listings from magazines like "Compute!"--yes, in fact, once upon a time the best way to get programs was to type them in from a listing in a magazine.  Hard to believe in an era where you can download gigabytes of free software while sitting on your living-room sofa.

At that time, QNX was called Quantum Software Systems.  And Quantum Software System's first product was called QUNIX: a microkernel-based OS that felt a little like UNIX.  AT&T was very polite in requesting that we change the name, and so QNX was born.

QUNIX released as product in 1981

Description:First commercial microkernel OS

Inventor:Dan Dodge and Gordon Bell

Impact on civilization: Showed it was possible to have a multi-user, multi-tasking, multiprocessor OS with real-time performance running on a PC with only 64K of RAM. It and its successors (QNX2, QNX4, QNX Neutrino RTOS) spawned many uses in reliability-critical industries.

What else was going on at the time of QNX's first product?  Two other notable software products were created right around then: one about 6 months before, and one about 6 months after.  You'll certainly recognize one.  If you've been around in this industry for long enough, you should recognize both.

Visicalc introduced on PC in 1981

Description: First commercial spreadsheet

Inventor: Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston

Impact on civilization: Made personal computers a serious business tool instead of a hobbyist orgame machine. Visicalc was first created in 1979, but it effectively launched the Personal Computing industry, by bringing IBM to the party in 1981.

I remember this pretty distinctly--my Dad bought Visicalc for the Atari 800. It made heavy use of the slash key for doing almost anything. It was pretty limited compared to Excel.  At the time, it was amazing to see numbers magically recalculated all over the page when you changed one little thing. All done in 48K. If you're feeling nostalgic, you can run a real version of this on your Windows PC for old-tymers found on Dan Bricklin's website.

MSDOS 1.0 released in 1982

Description:Common PC OS

Promoter/Inventor:Bill Gates / Tim Paterson

Impact on civilization: Created a common architecture for software development, spawning an industry. And created the world’s wealthiest person. (As of Mar 10, 2010 due to Mr. Gates' generous philanthropy and the depressed state of the stock market he was bumped down to the second wealthiest.)

By the time the IBM PC XT came out in 1983, I was gainfully employed writing statistical quality control software. Yes, it was in high school, but a real job, nonetheless.A 5MB hard drive--WHOA. That was big time. How on earth could you fill the whole thing? (Easy--put one single mp3 song on it.) In the intervening year, Microsoft DOS 1.0 had been replaced by MS-DOS 2.0. A major improvement and still with lots of warts, but it was the OS of choice for business applications. GW-BASIC was the language that my company used back then. I remember the good times when we'd have compiled basic programs give the occasional "Syntax error". Think about that for a second. It's a lot funnier now than it was at the time. We eventually replaced GW-Basic with Turbo Pascal, but I digress. Maybe that's fodder for another blog.


  1. I remember working for an accounting software company in the late 80s. The company's entire software suite -- which was quite extensive -- was created in compiled Business BASIC.

    If I remember correctly, the first BASIC program I wrote simply painted the screen blue while playing the tune "Blue Skies." Exciting stuff, or what? :-)

  2. MS-DOS was an insulting and degrading OS for professional IT personnel.


  3. I agree completely. As far as MS-DOS's impact on IT, many people might not remember the dark old days of LAN Manager under 640K, but I do. Rebooting to access the network, then because LANMAN couldn't be unloaded, rebooting again to be able to run your actual application software? Talk about productivity!