30 years of QNX: The first networked classroom computer

Originally developed in 1983 for the Ontario Ministry of Education, the Unisys ICON educational microcomputer was the first large-scale project based on the QNX operating system. Because networking was an essential requirement, the project provided the incentive for QNX Software Systems to develop its transparent distributed processing, which, 27 years later, remains a distinctive feature of the QNX Neutrino operating system.

These systems had a surprisingly long shelf life. Back in the mid-90s, I visited my son’s school and saw several them in use — more than a decade after they had been deployed.

As to the title of this post, I must admit that I have no evidence to back up the claim. But chances are, this was indeed the first networked classroom computer. And if not the first, then the first to be deployed on a large scale.

After all, how many grammar schools in those days had computer networks? For that matter, how many had computers?

ICON fact file:
  • Processor: Intel 80186
  • LAN protocol: ARCNET
  • Input: Keyboard and trackball
  • Display resolution: EGA
  • Speech chip: TI TMS 5220
  • File server hard drive: 10MB
  • OS for client and server machines: QNX


Robbert said...

Loved the trackball keyboard combo of these machines when I was in High School. Also the hard disk was this big box at one end of the line of ICONs with dinner plate sized platters.

It wasn't a very clear system though. As a student I didn't really get an idea where my stuff was and the programs didn't integrate as far as I knew. The paint program wouldn't save pictures if I recal. There was a word processor on this machine that you couldn't save to a file... or print (one or the other I can't remember anymore.) There was a sort of cool electronics program for doing wire diagrams and simulation.

But some students were hacking over the network and printing garbage on other people's screens. Which annoyed a lot of other students who wanted to work on their thing.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Reminds me of a word processor on the Commodore 128 that would let you exit a file without telling you that hadn't saved your changes.

Re remotely controlling other people's screens -- just one of the advantages and, when not controlled properly, disadvantages of transparently distributed processing. :-)

Paul N. Leroux said...

Er, that should read transparent, not transparently...

Neozeed said...

Wow I remember these things... we could play sound files on login... and annoy the crap out of the teachers... lol There was some horrible learning game with owls that we'd play over & over.

There was a IBM PC emulator for the colour models that we had hacked to run games..

I just remember there was no "cd .." for some reason... Sometimes I'd like an Icon server/station to play with, other times I just wish they taught C in addition to the LOGO/Pascal (turing lol! always cheezy knockoffs!)

Using the ICON stuff then going to the states to use AT&T 3B2's running SYSV made me feel like I was from the Soviet Union with "like" technology.... Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Who wrote the network business simulation game called "Mind Your Own Business" , "Money Market" for the Unisys ICON systems featuring QNX? What about "House Painter"? I'd like to find the source code for these old Icon programs.

Anonymous said...

Actually, "transparently distributed processing" is grammatically correct. The processing is distributed, and the distribution is transparent.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Anonymous, you made a good argument about the adverbial form of "transparent". Right or wrong, many of us think of the feature as "transparent [distributed processing]". Hence an adjective, rather than an adverb.

Jim Cooling said...

Hmm - if 'processing' is the noun then distributed is the adjective and transport is the adverb. But then, who really cares?

Paul N. Leroux said...

Well, Jim, you have a point. :-)