Is the PC World Going Multi-Tasking?

By Gotlieb, Leo | CMA - the Management Accounting Magazine, October 1993 | Go to article overview

Is the PC World Going Multi-Tasking?


Gotlieb, Leo, CMA - the Management Accounting Magazine


Do I really need an operating system for my PC which can perform more than one function at the same time? This is a question more people will be asking with the recent release of Windows/NT from Microsoft. To get a better understanding of the situation, it helps to look at some history.

Early computers only allowed one program to run at a time. When this program was running, it had full and exclusive access to all of the resources of the machine -- processor, memory, and input/output devices. Since computers were very expensive and processing time was at a premium, this exclusivity was wasteful -- for example, if a program was waiting to read a punched card, an operation which took several milliseconds, the processor would be sitting idle when it might otherwise be executing thousands of much faster arithmetic instructions for another program. In response, computer designers developed new hardware features and "multi-tasking" operating systems which permitted many programs to run at the same time, thus optimizing the use of system resources. If you remember this as "time sharing," you are giving away your age but this is exactly what people still do today when they use "dumb" terminals connected to such mainframe and minicomputer operating systems as MVS, VM, VMS.

The first personal computers were limited to single-task operation as much by size as by design. Thus, while multi-tasking systems were the norm for larger machines, the single-task system (DOS) that Microsoft developed for IBM PCs was adequate. DOS went on to become a de-facto industry standard and the base for thousands of packaged software programs. This very success meant that it had to remain virtually frozen in time, even though the PCs on which it ran evolved into machines that rival yesterday's mainframes.

Since PCs had caught up to the rest of the computing world in architectural terms, it made sense to provide them with comprehensive multi-tasking operating systems of their own. This is what IBM and Microsoft did with, respectively, OS/2 and Windows/NT. Either of these systems, as well as UNIX, turn a modern PC into a powerful machine that, in many respects, is functionally equivalent to a larger minicomputer or mainframe.

Exciting as this development is, it creates a dilemma for the average PC user who seeks only to overcome some of the more irritating limitations of DOS (the limited address space, the eight-character file names). …

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