Being an Operating System Company is Tough March 5, 2011Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms.
It’s always been difficult for an operating system to gain acceptance in the mainstream. I’m thinking of fine historical offerings such as the BeOS, Sun Solaris, and Inferno (NextStep also looked like it was destined for the dust heap of history before the acquisition of NeXT by Apple). These and others were in many cases technically superior, but couldn’t find a market, or were hobbled with few resources to stand out from the crowd.
As a writer and consultant, I had a relationship with QNX for a number of years in the 1990s. It was one of the first (and arguably the best) microkernel architecture. It reduced all essential OS functions into a very small amount of code, and only this code ran in kernel mode, where it could not be interrupted. The kernel was about 80 Kbytes of code, as compared with the Windows kernel, which the last time I knew checked in at 100 MB or so.
All other code, including device drivers, runs in user mode, and can be interrupted. As you might imagine, this was quite a design feat, because device drivers, responsible for I/O, would lose data if interrupted while fetching or sending data. Those tasks intimately associated with I/o were retained by the microkernel, and the device driver itself managed the I/O process.
While designed as an embedded OS for non-computer devices, QNX was unique in that it could also be loaded and run on a desktop or laptop computer. It is POSIX-compliant, the standard for defining Unix-like functions without using Unix code.
After over 20 years as a small but independent company, QNX was acquired in 2004 by Harman – yes, the stereo company. The primary justification was telematics – automobile entertainment systems, and QNX delivered for a number of telematics applications.
But this was always a tough organizational fit. It was underutilized in the telematics role, and couldn’t easily be applied by other manufacturers outside of that role.
Last April, QNX was acquired once again, this time by Research in Motion, also known as RIM, the maker of the Blackberry phone. The upcoming tablet computer, the BlackBerry Playbook, is using the QNX operating system. It will also likely be used in upcoming Blackberry smartphones.
In a world increasingly dominated by Apple’s IOS and Google Android, QNX is the best thing going for RIM right now. And while this likely means that there won’t be any more routers or automobiles using the OS, it’s good to see QNX being used in possibly the largest OS market of our times.