Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Truly Trivial: What was Microsoft's first operating system? (Hint: It wasn't DOS or Windows)

Digitally enhanced version of Ms_xenix.Image via Wikipedia
A mere 35 years ago this week, a fledgling little software concern known as Micro-Soft was founded in the southwestern town of Albuquerque, New Mexico by a couple of college dropouts looking to make money at computer software. As you might have heard, this worked out for them, as Bill Gates and Paul Allen are now wealthier than your average supervillain -- so much so that neither of them needs to work for the now hyphenless Microsoft. Gates uses his nigh-infinite funds to try to eradicate malaria while Allen spends his fortune on the more mundane (but far more difficult) task of winning championships with the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers.

We all know what made these guys Lex Luthor-level wealthy: Microsoft Windows, the operating system that took over the world from about 1993 until about five minutes past the iPhone launch. What most people don't know is that Microsoft didn't start as a Windows development shop, nor even primarily as a developer of DOS, the OS atop which Windows 1.0 originally ran. Micro-Soft began life as a creator of custom versions of BASIC programming language interpreters for the late, great Altair 8800 personal computer. When Microsoft built its first operating system, it was a very, very far cry from either the DOS or Windows builds that would make it the most powerful technology company on Earth.

What was the first operating system commercially released by Microsoft?

Unless you're a computer history buff or intellectual property lawyer, you probably haven't heard of Xenix, but that was the first OS ever released by Microsoft. It may also be among the most notoriously litigious chunks of code to appear in the last 30 years.

Xenix was a variant of Version 7 UNIX that Microsoft licensed from AT&T in 1979. Since Microsoft couldn't get the rights to use a variation of the UNIX name -- like, say, MS-UNIX -- the company simply gave the OS an original name: Xenix. The main appeal of Xenix was that it ran on 16-bit systems, particularly the Intel x86 architecture, which IBM was quickly making popular for virtually every mainstream use of microprocessors, including early PCs. For a brief period of time, Xenix was the most widely distributed version of UNIX in the world. Microsoft abandoned the Xenix product line in 1987 in favor of allying with IBM to promote OS/2.

Most of the x86 hardware port of Xenix was handled by a company known as the Santa Cruz Operation, better known today by the initials SCO. Linux enthusiasts are either smirking or snarling at this point, as after a series of acquisitions and dissolutions, the renamed SCO Group tried to sue several Linux vendors for violation of copyright, claiming the vendors' OS builds contained proprietary SCO code. In 2007, SCO went bankrupt as a laughingstock patent troll. That SCO died somewhat as a descendant of Microsoft's brief daliance with UNIX is seen by many as apropos, since most viewed the SCO Group's lawsuit as a Microsoft proxy attack on the threat Linux posed to Windows' market dominance. It just goes to show that the software community is truly a small world, and that no amount of code is above an appearance within the ranks of the Truly Trivial.
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