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July 15, 1991

CONCEPT OF THE OBJECT-ORIENTED OPERATING SYSTEM EXPLAINED IN WAKE OF IBM-APPLE DEAL

By CBR Staff Writer

As the whole computer industry knows by now, IBM Corp and Apple Computer Inc have signed a letter of intent to create a new company that will create new system software based on object-oriented technology. One interpretation of this is that the two intend to build an object-oriented operating system. But what precisely is an object-oriented operating system? The idea has been knocking about for a while – indeed the project that lost out to Tom West’s Eagle project when Data General Corp was starting out on the 32-bit minicomputer path – see Tracey Kidder’s book Soul of a New Machine – was an object-oriented system at both the hardware and the operating system level, and pieces of it were built and then abandoned. Bill Joy at Sun Microsystems Inc tried to build one with AT&T Co five or six years ago and gave up on the project. An object-oriented operating system built from scratch would be highly portable and component-based. For example, data management, file management, input-output and networking transports would each be a component or object of the operating system. Each of these components could be re-used in building other operating systems, would be intelligent – that is they would support inheritance, and would be replaceable so that they could be swapped with more desirable components. At its extreme this would mean that the system software vendor could dispense with the necessity for large chunks of the software market, such as databases and networking software. However, Chris Stone, president of the Object Management Group, thinks that this is unlikely to be realised because economics wouldn’t let that happen. The portability across various chip architectures is the benefit that most interested parties are pursuing in developing such software – so that they can remain impervious to the MIPS, Motorola, Sparc and Intel wars. For IBM and Apple are not alone in developing its New Technology, which can be described as an object-oriented operating system, although Microsoft developers are mainly working on an object-oriented file system. And then there is Plan 9 taking shape at AT&T Bell Laboratories where the frontiersmen of the Unix operating system are said to be building a new operating system that is object-oriented. They think it will take at least six years to come to fruition and it is unlikely that New Technology will be a commercially viable proposition much before 1996. However, these projects are already under way and although the world will wait up for whatever IBM and Apple come up with, they’ll buy other things meanwhile. So, are IBM and Apple serious about building an object-oriented operating system? The wording in the announcement is ambiguous – the two will create a new open system software platform that will be based on object-oriented technology. This could be interpreted as an extension of the work that Patriot Partners is already doing in creating a language-based object-oriented layer sitting on top of operating systems and networking transports. Whatever happens, applications for existing operating systems will be able to run with these future software products, thanks largely to the work being carried out at the Object Management Group, to which all major players now belong. As Chris Stone says of the proposed software the object model and the brokering mechanism are the perfect first step to build it. The IBM and Apple collaboration may seem bizarre, but those vendors waking up to the possibilities of object-oriented technology seem prepared to team up with anybody in order to steal a lead. After all, look at Sun and Hewlett-Packard Co – possibly another duo working on an object-oriented operating system? – Katy Ring

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