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,
desktops, 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
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
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.
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!
-- 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.
By 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
The GEOS product line:
-- 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.
-- 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.
-- Included GraphicsGrabber for importing clipart from other
Commodore graphics programs; an Icon Editor; Appointment Calendar; and the
game of Black Jack.
-- 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
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.
Fontpack -- 25 bitmap fonts in multiple sizes and languages. Included
geoFont, for creating your own fonts and modiying existing fonts.
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
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
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.