Operating systems (OSes) provide a set of functions needed and used by most application-programs on a computer, and the necessary linkages for the control and sychronization of the computer's hardware. On the first computers, without an operating system, every program needed the full hardware specification to run correctly and perform standard tasks, and its own drivers for peripheral devices like printers and card-readers. The growing complexity of hardware and application-programs eventually made operating systems a necessity.
Later machines came with libraries of support code, which would be linked to the user's program to assist in operations such as input and output. This was the genesis of the modern-day operating system. However, machines still ran a single job at a time; at Cambridge University in England the job queue was at one time a washing line from which tapes were hung with different colored clothes-pegs to indicate job-priority.
As machines became more powerful, the time needed for a run of a program diminished and the time to hand off the equipment became very large by comparison. Accounting for and paying for machine usage moved on from checking the wall clock to automatic logging by the computer. Run queues evolved from a literal queue of people at the door, to a heap of media on a jobs-waiting table, or batches of punch-cards stacked one on top of the other in the reader, until the machine itself was able to select and sequence which magnetic tape drives were online. Where program developers had originally had access to run their own jobs on the machine, they were supplanted by dedicated machine operators who looked after the well-being and maintenance of the machine and were less and less concerned with implementing tasks manually. When commercially available computer centers were faced with the implications of data lost through tampering or operational errors, equipment vendors were put under pressure to enhance the runtime libraries to prevent misuse of system resources. Automated monitoring was needed not just for CPU usage but for counting pages printed, cards punched, cards read, disk storage used and for signaling when operator intervention was required by jobs such as changing magnetic tapes.
All these features were building up towards the repertoire of a fully capable operating system. Eventually the runtime libraries became an amalgamated program that was started before the first customer job and could read in the customer job, control its execution, clean up after it, record its usage, and immediately go on to process the next job. Significantly, it became possible for programmers to use symbolic program-code instead of having to hand-encode binary images, once task-switching allowed a computer to perform translation of a program into binary form before running it. These resident background programs, capable of managing multistep processes, were often called monitors or monitor-programs before the term OS established itself.
An underlying program offering basic hardware-management, software-scheduling and resource-monitoring may seem a remote ancestor to the user-oriented OSes of the personal computing era. But there has been a shift in meaning. With the era of commercial computing, more and more "secondary" software was bundled in the OS package, leading eventually to the perception of an OS as a complete user-system with utilities, applications (such as text editors and file managers) and configuration tools, and having an integrated graphical user interface. The true descendant of the early operating systems is what is now called the "kernel". In technical and development circles the old restricted sense of an OS persists because of the continued active development of embedded operating systems for all kinds of devices with a data-processing component, from hand-held gadgets up to industrial robots and real-time control-systems, which do not run user-applications at the front-end. An embedded OS in a device today is not so far removed as one might think from its ancestor of the 1950s.
The broader categories of systems and application software are discussed in the computer software article.
Early operating systems were very diverse, with each vendor or customer producing one or more operating systems specific to their particular mainframe computer. Every operating system, even from the same vendor, could have radically different models of commands, operating procedures, and such facilities as debugging aids. Typically, each time the manufacturer brought out a new machine, there would be a new operating system, and most applications would have to be manually adjusted, recompiled, and retested.
The state of affairs continued until the 1960s when IBM, already a leading hardware vendor, stopped the work on existing systems, and put all the effort into developing the System/360 series of machines, all of which used the same instruction architecture. IBM intended to develop also a single operating system for the new hardware, the OS/360. The problems encountered in the development of the OS/360 are legendary, and are described by Fred Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month—a book that has become a classic of software engineering. Because of performance differences across the hardware range and delays with software development, a whole family of operating systems were introduced instead of a single OS/360.
IBM wound up releasing a series of stop-gaps followed by three longer-lived operating systems:
IBM maintained full compatibility with the past, so that programs developed in the sixties can still run under z/VSE (if developed for DOS/360) or z/OS (if developed for OS/MFT or OS/MVT) with no change.
UNIVAC, the first commercial computer manufacturer, produced a series of EXEC operating systems. Like all early main-frame systems, this was a batch-oriented system that managed magnetic drums, disks, card readers and line printers. In the 1970s, UNIVAC produced the Real-Time Basic (RTB) system to support large-scale time sharing, also patterned after the Dartmouth BASIC system.
Burroughs Corporation introduced the B5000 in 1961 with the MCP (Master Control Program) operating system. The B5000 was a stack machine designed to exclusively support high-level languages with no machine language or assembler and indeed the MCP was the first OS to be written exclusively in a high-level language (ESPOL, a dialect of ALGOL). MCP also introduced many other ground-breaking innovations, such as being the first commercial implementation of virtual memory. MCP is still in use today in the Unisys ClearPath/MCP line of computers.
General Electric and MIT developed General Electric Comprehensive Operating Supervisor (GECOS), which introduced the concept of ringed security privilege levels. After acquisition by Honeywell it was renamed to General Comprehensive Operating System (GCOS).
Digital Equipment Corporation developed many operating systems for its various computer lines, including TOPS-10 and TOPS-20 time sharing systems for the 36-bit PDP-10 class systems. Prior to the widespread use of UNIX, TOPS-10 was a particularly popular system in universities, and in the early ARPANET community.
In the late 1960s through the late 1970s, several hardware capabilities evolved that allowed similar or ported software to run on more than one system. Early systems had utilized microprogramming to implement features on their systems in order to permit different underlying architecture to appear to be the same as others in a series. In fact most 360's after the 360/40 (except the 360/165 and 360/168) were microprogrammed implementations. But soon other means of achieving application compatibility were proven to be more significant.
Another system which evolved in this time frame was the Pick operating system. The Pick system was developed and sold by Microdata Corporation who created the precursors of the system. The system is an example of a system which started as a database application support program and graduated to system work.
The fact that the majority of these machines were bought for entertainment and educational purposes and were seldom used for more "serious" or business/science oriented applications, partly explains why a "true" operating system was not necessary.
Another reason is that they were usually single-task and single-user machines and shipped with minimal amounts of RAM, usually between 4 and 256 kilobytes, with 64 and 128 being common figures, and 8-bit processors, so an operating system's overhead would likely compromise the performance of the machine without really being necessary.
Modern day game consoles and videogames, starting with the PC-Engine, all have a minimal BIOS that also provides some interactive utilities such as memory card management, Audio or Video CD playback, copy prevention and sometimes carry libraries for developers to use etc. Few of these cases, however, would qualify as a "true" operating system.
The most notable exceptions are probably the Dreamcast game console which includes a minimal BIOS, like the PlayStation, but can load the Windows CE operating system from the game disk allowing easily porting of games from the PC world, and the Xbox game console, which is little more than a disguised Intel-based PC running a secret, modified version of Microsoft Windows in the background. Furthermore, there are Linux versions that will run on a Dreamcast and later game consoles as well.
Long before that, Sony had released a kind of development kit called the Net Yaroze for its first PlayStation platform, which provided a series of programming and developing tools to be used with a normal PC and a specially modified "Black PlayStation" that could be interfaced with a PC and download programs from it. These operations require in general a functional OS on both platforms involved.
In general, it can be said that videogame consoles and arcade coin operated machines used at most a built-in BIOS during the 1970s, 1980s and most of the 1990s, while from the PlayStation era and beyond they started getting more and more sophisticated, to the point of requiring a generic or custom-built OS for aiding in development and expandability.
The development of microprocessors made inexpensive computing available for the small business and hobbyist, which in turn led to the widespread use of interchangeable hardware components using a common interconnection (such as the S-100, SS-50, Apple II, ISA, and PCI buses), and an increasing need for 'standard' operating systems to control them. The most important of the early OSes on these machines was Digital Research's CP/M-80 for the 8080 / 8085 / Z-80 CPUs. It was based on several Digital Equipment Corporation operating systems, mostly for the PDP-11 architecture. MS-DOS (or PC-DOS when supplied by IBM) was based originally on CP/M-80. Each of these machines had a small boot program in ROM which loaded the OS itself from disk. The BIOS on the IBM-PC class machines was an extension of this idea and has accreted more features and functions in the 20 years since the first IBM-PC was introduced in 1981.
The decreasing cost of display equipment and processors made it practical to provide graphical user interfaces for many operating systems, such as the generic X Window System that is provided with many UNIX systems, or other graphical systems such as Microsoft Windows, the RadioShack Color Computer's OS-9 Level II/MultiVue, Commodore's AmigaOS, Apple's Mac OS, or even IBM's OS/2. The original GUI was developed at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the early '70s (the Alto computer system) and imitated by many vendors.