A brief history of GEOS

Ask a random person in the street to name an operating system and 90+ percent will go for Windows, iOS/Android or the now 30 years old MS-DOS.
What many people don’t realize however, was that in the 80s it wasn’t Microsoft or even Apple that dominated the market with their OS… it was a system running on the Commodore 64…

Most users of the Commodore 64 have used it for gaming thanks to the wizardry of the full-color VIC display chip and superb audio from the SID.
If you had to use the breadbox in a (semi-)professional environment, chances are you’ve come across a gem in computing history, called GEOS.

GEOS, which is short for Graphic Environment Operating System was a complete graphical user interface with all the bells and whistles like “point and click” operation and operating system for the C64.
It launched in 1986 by Berkeley Softworks, in the style of Microsoft Windows and MacOS, but it ran on only 64K of RAM!
To put it into perspective, when Microsoft released Windows 1.0 in 1985, the box boasted that the OS could run on a “mere” 256K, but a review of the software was greeted with the quote “running Windows, even on 512K, is the same as pouring maple syrup on the Antarctic”.
GEOS did all this, and more, on just 64K… what magic was at work here?

The magic of GEOS actually lies in the airline industry.  Berkeley Softworks (a young company founded by the engineer Brian Dougherty) was building a small computer with an LCD display and membrane keyboard called the Sky Tray that would fit into the seat trays on a plane.  As the actual computer needed to be small, powerful and cheap, the MOS 6502 chip was chosen as the core of the Sky Tray system for which Berkeley was developing the GUI.  Memory wasn’t cheap back then, so this GUI really had to make do with a very small amount of RAM.
Then “disaster” struck, as the US saw its airline marketplace become more and more deregulated…  Now, it was “disaster” for Berkeley, as suddenly, the airlines had to cut costs to become more competitive, and Sky Tray was one of the projects that got axed, but of course for the traveler, the deregulation was a welcome initiative (see the historical footnote at the bottom).
Just like every cloud has a silver lining, so did this turn of events for Berkeley.  They had completed their GUI for the Sky Tray and it just so happened that a computer, with a 6510 chipset was becoming the most popular computer in history, but it lacked a user-friendly GUI.  That computer was of course the Commodore 64!
Berkeley’s engineers and developers set out to convert their code to this 6510 CPU and GEOS was born on March 1986.

Just like Windows on the PC, GEOS was more than just the OS and GUI (which had the fitting name “DeskTop”) – it was the basis for a complete suite of office automation and productivity tools, allowing items and objects from one application to be reused in another and providing a set of basic ready-made components for developers to tap into and reuse in their applications, just like in today’s Windows environment.
The first release of GEOS 1.0 added GeoWrite (a WYSIWYG word processor) and GeoPaint (a WYSIWYG graphics editor) to the suite.  Later releases added new applications like “Photo Manager”, GeoSpell and enhanced support for Commodore mice and printers.
In parallel, third party developers and Berkeley themselves developed additional applications such as an advanced spreadsheet application with graph support called GeoCalc, a file manager providing support for bigger and faster disk drives like the 1571 and 1581, modem interfaces like GeoTerm, development tools like GeoProgrammer and GeoBasic  and much more.
Support for Commodore’s other computers was added as well, with most notably GEOS128, the GEOS version that took advantage of the Commodore 128’s 80-columns capabilities and the extra RAM.

The latter, the extra RAM turned out to be an important aspect of the future success of GEOS.  Although originally conceived to run on the 64K of the C64, the sheer number of productivity tools and applications, in part demanded by the ever increasing requirements of the office user, meant that in order to have a smooth operating OS and tools, more RAM was needed.  Faster drives like the 1571 and 1581 were only part of the solution as they could speed up the disk I/O, but it was memory expansion units like CMD’s RAMLink and RAMDrive and Berkeley’s own GeoRAM512 that really made the difference.  Having multiple MBs of RAM at your disposal made running the OS and the applications a breeze.  GEOS as of version 1.3 took full advantage of the possible RAM upgrades.

The popularity of the OS is further highlighted by the fact that when Commodore released the C64C in 1986 they sold bundles of this redesigned C64 with GEOS alongside, almost making it the de facto OS of choice for the professional user.

As with all good things in life however, they end sooner or later.  The final release of GEOS, version 2.0 shipped in June 1988 with a final release of version 2.5 in Germany in 1993.  The latter included an improved desktop called “TopDesk”, that removed amongst others the limitation of maximum 3 disk drives on screen.

So how successful was it really?  Well, some sources call it the “third most popular operating system – by units shipped – next to MS-DOS and MacOS” and the “second most widely used GUI, next to MacOS”.  Furthermore, in the 80s Berkeley also created a GEOS version for the Apple II and we briefly had a PC variant of the entire suite called GEOS Ensemble (including GeoWrite, GeoCalc, …) which utilized full multi-tasking without the tricks needed to achieve the same on the good old breadbox.
Even not so long ago, before Symbian (the now struggling phone OS due to the popularity of iOS and Android) became Nokia’s OS of choice, they used GEOS as a base operating system for their Communicator series.

I think it’s safe to assume that indeed, GEOS was one of the best systems available on the market and one that rightfully deserves its place in the OS Hall of Fame!

Historical footnote:
In 1938 the U.S. government, through the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), regulated many areas of commercial aviation such as routes, fares and schedules. The CAB had three main functions: to award routes to airlines, to limit the entry of air carriers into new markets, and to regulate fares for passengers.
This surely was needed, as the number of commercial airlines was relatively small and concerns of monopoly (with the associated high prices) were justified.
With more and more airline companies entering the market, the requirements for a heavily regulated marketplace diminished and the new entrants, i.e. new airline companies, could start operating competing routes, allowing travelers more choice when going from A to B.  So airlines vying for more passengers, had to lure these in with reduced airfares.
The airline industry in the US hence started to become more and more deregulated with the “Airline Deregulation Act” of 1978.

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9 Responses to A brief history of GEOS

  1. I loved GEOS. I ran it on my stock C128 for years; using it for most of my high school papers and my first and second year college papers. Later, I installed Geoworks Ensemble on my 286 which my sister used for her college work for a few years. I used that because it ran quite a bit faster than Windows did on that hardware; as I understand it, it was written almost entirely in assembly.

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  3. GEOS was not all that popular in the US. It was cool, but not popular. and by 1998 many many users had moved on to the Amiga. But, I guess I wasn’t “professional.” Very interesting trip down Nostalgia Lane however, thank you!

  4. Robby "The C= guy"

    Hi Bert, indeed, the AmigaOS outshines many (even today’s) OSes, however, just the fact that it was a graphical OS on a mere 64K of RAM make it a champion of OS design in my book.
    The Amiga wasn’t for everyone’s purse either. Yes, it was really cheap for the computing power you got, but still for many the C64 or C128 with GEOS meant at least an additional 5 years or so of good service for tasks like text editing, calculation, etc.

  5. Robby "The C= guy"

    Hi Pete, I remember using it to edit the school paper that I managed from within the student body. I upgraded to Amiga and PC much much later and GEOS really meant I could add another couple of years to my C64.

  6. I have many happy memories of GEOS. I’m wondering if it was the first GUI system I ever used. I remember it being pretty colourful, even though it wasn’t meant to be… the chequer-board pattern in the background lookedgreen and blue on our TV. It took me years to realise it wasn’t supposed to be like that!

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  8. Sorry, but Geos was always behind in market share when compared to MS-DOS/Mac OS.

  9. Loved it, and the ‘windows’ environment. Thanks Commodore for some fun productivity with a C64. Copycats were born.

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