What's in an Operating System ?

As a long-time hacker (the good kind), I’ve dealt with a staggering assortment of operating systems over the years, on many different platforms. In the last few years, I’ve been growing ever more irritated by the blurring distinction between operating systems and applications, and the nasty problems that commingling has created.

Most people today know the big three: Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. All three have (d)evolved into huge software bundles, consuming around 3 or 4 gigabytes of disk space just for the guts. Ten years ago, all three were less than 1/10th of their current size, while doing pretty much the same thing, only not as pretty/fancy/friendly. More importantly, they were a heck of a lot faster to load, so what happened in those ten years ?

By definition, an operating system is the software that allows you to make use of the computer’s hardware. That means providing device drivers, managing memory, storing files and running applications. The operating system is supposed to be the lowest level of software in a computer system, controlling all other software’s access to the system’s resources. Nowhere is it defined that it needs to draw rounded windows, play little ditties whenever you click a button, or decide what you can and can’t do on the internet. That’s not in its job description, so why does every popular operating system do a bazillion things (badly) when all it should be doing is the basics ? More often than not, the problems we encounter are due to this massive integration of marginally useful features, each one making the system bigger, more complicated and more likely for a developer to introduce bugs or back-doors.

I was playing around with old software the other day, for nostalgia’s sake, when I came across something called Nano98. It’s the result of a bored hacker stripping Windows 98 down to the bare minimum. The result is only 5 megabytes! That’s one thousandth the size of a standard Windows XP installation. It doesn’t have any extra software loaded, just what’s required to boot the machine to a working desktop. Now there are some significant architectural differences between Windows 98 and XP so don’t expect anyone to come out with a 5mb stripped version of Windows XP, but if you were to put them side-by-side, is there really that much more to XP that warrants the long load times, odd glitches, and of course heavy disk usage and wear ?

Now look at Windows Vista and tell me what the big fuss is about! What can Vista do that XP can’t do ? Seriously! What do most people do with a computer: create and store office documents, surf the net, and download music… oh, and porn! Well guess what, we’ve been doing all that since the very first home computers were made available in the late 70’s and early 80’s. We didn’t have internet back then, but we did have private BBS networks where people traded files, sent email and played online games with other computer users. We had word processors, spreadsheets (Visicalc, anyone?), maybe not music and porn because of hardware limitations at the time, but really no one cared about an operating system. It was there, doing its thing behind the scenes. The real star was the software that actually let us do all these things. The best part was that the operating system was usually stored on a ROM chip, and booted instantly.

I’ll be honest, I miss those days. I do wonder why a 3.2 ghz dual-core system needs a minute or two to start up. I’m quick to accuse the new breed of programmers, the Visual Basic generation, who write software like a novel rather than a sequence of machine instructions, but a part of me wants to believe there’s a genuine reason that a bleeding-edge computer should take that long to show me a mouse pointer and file list.

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One Response to “What's in an Operating System ?”

  1. BitBurn says:

    Bing, post donc une link pour le downloader Nano98, j’veux l’awoir! thank u