Southern Man

Friday, December 09, 2011


Earlier this evening Southern Man was installing an operating system (in an effort to get that last busted PC up and running) and chatting with a friend on the phone who asked "What are you installing?" and upon hearing that it was Windows XP responded with (more or less) "WTF?" So here is a brief history of operating systems and why Southern Man uses what he does.

The earliest desktops had their OS burned right into the hardware but pretty early in the game they gained the ability to load enhancements to their built-in OS from a disk drive - thus the "Disk Operating System," an OS loaded from external media and including the ability to manage that media. Southern Man's very first computer, a TRS-80, originally loaded programs from cassette tape (!) but eventually gained an external floppy-disk drive and the TRS-DOS operating system; the TRS-80 Model III that replaced it had a couple of built-in drives and could run both TRS-DOS and CP/M. When Southern Man was running his beloved Amiga 1000 and the marvelous AmigaOS operating system at home
Microsoft was up to MS-DOS 3.3 or so and Southern Man ran that on PC-XT and PC-AT computers in grad school (where he spent most of his computing time on PDP-11 and VAX 11/780 mainframes playing Empire and Moria and (in his spare time) writing and using data-analysis software in FORTRAN and where he even got to play with the little-known PC-RT and IBM's Academic Operating System while working with a professor that had one) and in his first years teaching. The Amiga was eventually replaced by a fairly decent no-name Windows 3 386 box. It cost about $1000 at a local warehouse store and was Southern Man's first personal computer that had a hard drive. His introduction to working on and eventually building PCs was when he purchased and installed a CD-ROM drive all by himself.

DOS and early versions of Windows were what we tech-heads called real mode, flat-memory, single-tasking operating systems. They could do one thing at a time and that one thing owned the entire computer. Exceptions were things like print spoolers and TSR programs like SideKick which let you do two or even three things at a time, sometimes. The DOS user interface was initially a simple command prompt like older operating systems but eventually evolved into something of a Graphics User Interface or GUI; DOS Shell was a DOS GUI. Windows 3.1 with 386 Enhanced Mode introduced protected mode, virtual memory, and multitasking and could (to some extent) do many things "at the same time" and keep those many things more or less isolated from one another. This was vastly improved in Windows 95 and had been tweaked considerably by Windows 98 2nd Edition, which is Southern Man's choice for old programs that just won't run on a modern OS. Windows ME was a step backwards and Southern Man never used it, but he always keeps a Windows 98 2nd Ed (along with DOS 7 for the really old games) box up and running. No, it never even touches the 'net.

In parallel with the Windows 9x line Microsoft was developing an entirely new OS line called "NT" that was (more or less) built from scratch (or, given that Microsoft had hired a lot of DEC employees, built on VMS) to be a protected-mode, virtual-memory, pre-emptive multitasking OS from the outset. The first version was NT 3 (an advertising gimmick, as "regular" Windows was also in version 3) and was fairly well recieved even though the more advanced OS couldn't run a lot of earlier Windows software that required direct access to resources that the OS now controlled (such as the aforementioned SideKick; later versions of NT gained "compatibility modes" to deal with such older and ill-behaved software). NT 4 was well regarded for its stability as a workstation and server. NT 5 was released under the name Windows 2000 and got an upgrade to Windows 95's look and feel instead of the somewhat clunkier Windows 3 GUI. Invoke "version" on Windows XP and it says "5.1" and Vista claims to be version 6. You can guess where Windows 7 gets its name. Of these the high-water mark is XP with Service Pack 2. Vista was so full of suck that many establishments (including everywhere that Southern Man worked and taught) refused to use it at all. Windows 7 is Vista with much of the suck removed but with some entirely new suck added. Southern Man uses it at work because he doesn't have a choice; all of his (admittedly older) PCs at home run XP SP 2 and good old Office 2003. Don't get him started on the steaming pile of suck that is Office 2010. But it is a tribute to Microsoft's dedication to "backwards compatibility" that Southern Man's copy of Empire, with a compile date of 1988, runs just fine in a Win 7 command-line session. Do not tell the people at work how he knows this.

So Southern Man has one machine running Windows 98 2nd Edition with DOS 7 and a bunch with XP SP2. If he builds a new machine this summer (he hasn't built a new computer in over six years so it's about time) he'll grit his teeth and put Windows 7 on it, but then he gets to run XP in virtual machines which is really the best way to safely touch the 'net. And given that he's hardly a Microsoft fanboy he's kind of chomping at the bit for a Windows 8 touchscreen laptop in a year or so; the iPad has really gotten him hooked on large touchscreens but he'll be happy to replace the Apple toy with an actual computer. Given that his most recent laptop is a Celeron 300 running Windows 95 it's probably about time for that as well. But it is a safe prediction that Casa Southern Man will always house more computers than any one person really needs.


At Saturday, December 10, 2011, Blogger mkfreeberg said...

I use XP myself, on the HP mini. I like it that way. And I run a registered copy of Excel 97 on top of it, by choice.

I don't like running the last thing they put out, I like running the last thing they got right. I very often find out this is the difference between my setup and the setups of people who are having lots of problems I'm not having.

At Sunday, December 11, 2011, Blogger Southern Man said...

One of the perks of academia is that the university pays a king's ransom to MS (and other companies) every year and thus faculty (and students!) have the rights to use their software at home, so I get to play with everything for free under the academic licensing. But my W98s and XPs are back from the day when I built PCs on the side and bought hundreds OEM CDs at a hundred dollars each. I think I have a box of Win 3.1 diskettes still in the shrink wrap, somewhere.


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