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GEOS: Looking Back

Reproduced March 25 2002 with permission from James Esch of Turks Head Review GRAPHIC ENVIRONMENT OPERATING SYSTEM A Nostalgic Appreciation See our magazine section for CMD’s purchase of GEOS and How to Install GEOS instructions

GEOS, an astounding  software product line from Berkeley Softworks, breathed new life into  Commodore’s 8-bit computers (the C64, C128) at a time when sales of 8 bit boxes  were beginning to sag. As a graphical operating system, GEOS ripped-off its look-and-feel  from the novel Apple Macintosh. Circa 1986, Mac-like gadgets, icons, menus,  GEOS Commodore Operating Systemdesktops, and windows were a fresh phenomenon in personal computing. These  interfaces made technology much easier to use. (Anyone who remembers how to do  directory listings on a C64 from the flashing prompt knows what I’m talking  about.)

How the programmers at Berkeley Softworks  could possibly devise a GUI-based OS within the limitations of an 8-bit  Commodore CPU (with its 64K of RAM and 40 column video screen), was nothing  short of incredible, nay miraculous. With GEOS, your C64 could do more than  games. You could actually get work done with it. Or so the theory went (more on  that later).

Yes, it really was possible to operate GEOS on  a stock C64 with one 1541 disk drive, but let’s not kid ourselves, it wasn’t  very practical. On a one drive system, you’d have to do  frequent disk swaps. To get anything serious done, you needed a 256K or 512K RAM  expansion unit socketed into your expansion port. A second disk drive helped  too, as did the addition of a mouse in lieu of clunky joystick. With one or both  of those add-ons, you didn’t have to swap disks so much, and, when running apps  off the virtual “RAM drive,” performance was positively blazing. Really, it was.

Here’s a quick overview of what GEOS came  with, out of the box.

deskTop — the   graphical interface and operating system kernal. Disk icons appeared on the   right side of the screen. One window covered the main region, organized like a   notepad — each page displayed 8 files at a time, and you could “turn the   page” to view other files on a disk. Along the top ran the dropdown menus;   along the bottom was space for your printer icon (which supported drag and   drop printing), the trashcan (drag and drop file deletion), and an area for   dropping files you wanted to copy between disks. With deskTop you could manage   files with ease, format and copy disks, copy and rename files. All this stuff   we take for granted today; at the time, it was a revelation.

geoPaint —   Color painting and drawing application. 14 tools, 32 different brush shapes,   and 32 painting patterns. Very much in the spirit of MacPaint.

geoWrite — a   simple WYSIWYG word processor, with bitmap fonts, type styles, and   cut/copy/paste buffers. On the C64’s 40 column screen, you could only view   about 5 inches of an 8.5 inch page width. If your margins were set to page   width, the screen would scroll horizontally as you typed!

DeskAccessories   — small applications you could run while inside any GEOS application (an   early form of multitasking?). Included an alarm clock, a notepad, a   calculator, photo and text albums, and a preference manager.

geodesktopBy the time GEOS matured to version 1.3, it  was a pretty usable product. Assuming you had the RAM expansion and a mouse, you  could (in theory) do everything you could do on a Macintosh for about one eighth  the price.(Remember, Commodore was Jack Tremiel’s computer for the masses, not  the classes!) Commodore started bundling GEOS with every C64 they shipped, and  it became the de facto “OS”, even though it basically ran as an application. You  started it by typing “LOAD “*”,8,1″ at your blue Commodore basic prompt, just  like any other program.

GEOS was its own  insulated world. Yes, you could manage files and run some non-GEOS applications  from within GEOS (a crapshoot that more often hosed your machine), but GEOS was  really designed to be a platform unto itself. It didn’t live comfortably with  the rest of the Commodore universe, and many in the Commodore scene rejected it  out of hand. Still, GEOS ressurrected a platform that was past its prime, and  many a computer was rescued from the bedroom closet as a result. Berkeley  Softworks supplied an impressive range of applications for GEOS (summarized  below) and their product packaging, documentation, and advertising was slick and  highly professional (especially by Commodore standards). The GEOS brandname  embodied a mix of technical wizardry, user friendliness, and productive  potential.

The GEOS product line:

geoWrite Workshop  — Featured geoWrite, a full featured word processor (by 80’s   standards) that touted these kick-ass features: 8″ text width,   center/right/full justification, 1, 1.5, and Double Spacing, decimal tabs,   super- and subscript, headers/footers, pagination, search and replace,   keyboard shortcuts, and wysiwyg editing. geoMerge was a mail merge program for   form letters. geoLaser was an Apple LaserWriter print driver. You could even   upload your files to QuantumLink (an online service provider) and have laser   printed copy delivered to you overnight! Text Grabber was an import module for   other Commodore word processor formats.

geoDex  — A nifty little electronic “card file” application for storing   names, addresses, and phone numbers — just like a rolodex. You could organize   your files by group or alphabetically, and you could search it, print phone   lists and address labels, even autodial phonenumbers if you had a connected   modem. It worked too; I used to do it all the time.

DeskPack1  — Included GraphicsGrabber for importing clipart from other   Commodore graphics programs; an Icon Editor; Appointment Calendar; and the   game of Black Jack.

DeskPack2 —  

FontPack 1   — 20 additional bitmap fonts that closely resembled the kind   of fonts you’d get on a Macintosh.

geoCalc  — A wysiwyg spreadsheet. 28,000 data cells, 256 rows and 112   columns. Adjustable cell width and alignment with four type styles (plain,   bold, italic, bold italic). Included trigonometric, exponential, logarithmic   and financial functions with accuracy to 9 places. You could split screen to   view two portions of the spreadsheet at once. And of course you could print —   with or without gridlines in draft, near letter quality, and presentation   quality.

geoFile  — A database application. You could design your own forms up   to 8.5 x 11 inches. Fields were searchable, and you could print forms in 16   different ways. Data was mergeable into form letters too. Word was that   geoFile had some nasty bugs, and I’m not sure they ever got fixed.

geoSpell  — A spell checker with 28,000 word dictionary. You could   create personal dictionaries for speciliazed vocabulary. Included geoFont for   customizing existing fonts or creating your own.

geoPublish  — A desktop publishing application, believe it or not. It   actually had master pages (for column design, left/right masters, automatic   page numbering, and more), a page layout mode (flow text into regions, wrap   text around graphics, touch up text with the built-in text editor), a page   graphics mode with drawing tools, image centering/cropping/scaling, and more.   This program blew people away — with a LaserWriter, you could create 300 dpi   newsletters from your lowly C64. Scary.

International   Fontpack  — 25 bitmap fonts in multiple sizes and languages. Included   geoFont, for creating your own fonts and modiying existing fonts.

geoPrint   cable  — A plug and play cable that ran from your Commodore’s user   port to the Centronics parallel port on a printer. This speeded up printing   from GEOS dramatically.

There were a few other products on the   market, like geoChart. But I don’t have firsthand knowledge of them.


What Went Wrong With GEOS

GEOS for the Commodore  had some fatal flaws that doomed it as a viable 8-bit operating system. The  problem can be reduced to two words: copy protection. The GEOS “boot  disk” was copy protected. Out of the box, they only gave you one backup boot  disk. Berkeley Softworks really outdid themselves in making the boot disk  virtually impossible to crack. Although other applications were not copy  protected, they were “keyed” to your boot disk, meaning that after “installing”  your newest GEOS application, you wouldn’t be able to use those apps unless you  booted with your original system disk. This kept GEOS out of the hands of  pirates, but it was incredibly short-sighted.

Have you ever seen a 5.25″ floppy disk? It is  obscenely easy to mutilate. Have you also seen and heard a 1541 disk drive?  Especially one that needs an alignment? A 1541 can perform complex drum solos on  your disk that would make Buddy Rich jealous. What this means is that the entire  brilliant achievement of software expertise that was GEOS, this user friendly  operating environment coded and packaged to make your life easier, was a ticking  time bomb waiting for the fateful day that your boot disks got trashed, making  ALL of your work irretrievable.

Now, in the product’s heyday, you did have  options. If your boot disks got corrupted, you could mail them off to Berkeley  Softworks and get some new ones back. But what is a die-hard GEOS user to do  now, now that Berkeley Softworks is a distant memory, with Commodore hardware  out of production? Do you dare pit your GEOS boot disk against a 15 year old  Commodore disk drive, as cranky as an old bastard with a hickory cane in his  hand? Yes, there are workarounds. I have heard that somebody finally cracked the  GEOS copy protection scheme, but finding those programs can quickly turn into a  hunt for red herrings. The current distributor of GEOS, CMD, may have some  answers for you too. Explore the Other Resources links on this page and you  might find ways to salvage your work, should you be fingered with the boot disk  curse.

But this misses the point. GEOS touted itself  as a user-friendly system that would help you be productive and use your  personal computer for real things in the real world. But the copy protected boot  disks doomed the system to future obsolescence. I wouldn’t go so far as to call  it “planned obsolescence” — rather, it was a short-sightedness, a protecting of  immediate returns on investment. GEOS is a microcosm of what you might call high  tech’s tragic irony — this blessed equipment and software that brings us  productivity is always racing towards obsolescence, taking our work away with  it, unless of course, you upgrade.

What GEOS still makes me yearn for is that  sense of stasis, of having arrived at the technological mothership, where we  won’t have to wander the galaxy, looking for new resources to exploit and  colonize. GEOS offerred up a picture of that stasis, a vision of productivity  accomplished through the stability of an elegantly thought-out operating  environment — but unfortunately it was only a picture, a pretty box shot of how  life should be, as perfect as a living room arrangement in the IKEA catalog.  It’s not real. The product is never what it claims to be, what you want it to  be. The IKEA furniture comes to your house in a box and you have to screw it  together with allen wrenches, and when finally assembled, it looks like what it  is — particleboard with a cheap veneer. And GEOS, once you got it out of the  box and ran with it for awhile, didn’t work as practically as you wanted it to  — because this was, afterall, a Commodore 64 — brutally slow with big honking  rat-a-tat disk drives and limited screen space and screechy dot matrix printers  and unpredictable print drivers and nasty copy protection . The gap between what  could have been and what was, what could be and what is, is wider than we’d like  to admit.

The Structure of GEOS and “Work Disks”

Because of the limitations of Commodore memory  and disk space, GEOS came up with a clever way of organizing your operating  environment to reduce the need for swapping disks. Briefly put, you always had  to boot with the system disk; after this you could load applications from other  disks. The idea was to make various “Work Disks”, which could contain  applications, desk accessories, files, fonts, drivers, and so forth. It could  get confusing, keeping all those work disks in order, and it was a challenge  finding the right combinations of programs you’d need to get the kind of work  you’d want done. Disk space was in short supply. Remember, these were the days  before hard drives, which made life so much easier, because you could pile  everything you might possibly need onto the hard drive and forget about it. In  the 8-bit, floppy drive domain, life was different.

There was a beneficial outcome arising from  these GeoLimitations — it forced you to think organizationally, and it  emphasized the WORK over the applications. How so? Because GEOS applications  could be freely copied to as many work disks as you wanted, the Work disk was  the organizational unit. In fact, it made most sense to keep one “project” or  group of related files to one disk, with the apps you needed to work them. For  example, let’s say you were writing a term paper. There’d be a one-to-one  correspondence between disk and project. One disk = one term paper. The word  processor would sit on the same disk as the file(s) worked on. If you wanted to  write a second term paper, you’d start a new disk, copy the word processor and  fonts you needed over to it, and away you go. Disk 2 = Term Paper 2. In a sense,  this is a more logical way to organize work than to have one disk with all your  term papers on it and another disk with your word processor.


GEOS was so successful  on the Commodore platform that it was ported to Apple II, and later to the PC.  Unfortunately, GEOS for the PC was in competition with Microsoft Windows by that  point, and it wasn’t much of a fair fight, nor was the outcome ever in question.  Still, GEOS kept many a 286 and 386 CPU in action past their prime, doing things  that Windows couldn’t do under the same constraints. The company morphed into a  beast known as Geoworks, which focused on  the PDA and cellular phone market. Offshoot companies include wink — an end-to-end system for doing  e-commerce over your television, and neomagic which creates multimedia semiconductor technology for mobile computing. Where  there’s a demand for more performance in constrained space (e.g. Palm pilot),  you’re likely to whiff remnants of the “GEOS” mystique. 

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