30 years of QNX: The first QNX-based computer

March 2010 marks QNX Software Systems’ 30th anniversary in the embedded business. To celebrate the occasion, I’ve decided to launch an anniversary countdown: 30 blog posts that trace the history of QNX and the computing industry, from 1980 to the present.

After rummaging around the QNX corporate attic, I found just the thing for kicking off this series: photos of the first QNX-based computer.

I don’t have any data on the processor — an 8-bitter, no doubt — but check out the handwired circuit boards and the converted keypunch keyboard. Note especially the hand-drawn labels on the keys.

Click to enlarge.

From the desktop to the factory floor

This hand-assembled computer first came to life circa 1980. At the time, the IBM PC was still an idea brewing in IBM's labs. Development of MS-DOS hadn't even started.

A year later, the landscape had changed. The PC had made its debut, spawning a software industry focused mainly on business and productivity applications. Dan Dodge and Gord Bell, the co-founders of QNX Software Systems, also saw great potential in the PC, but with a twist. Rather than use the PC as a platform for word processing, they had a more mission-critical vision: enabling PCs to control robots, oil rigs, power plants, medical devices, and just about any other system that demanded performance, predictability, and absolute reliability.

At the core of their strategy was the QNX operating system — a multitasking, multiuser, multiprocessing realtime OS based on a message-passing microkernel architecture.

It was a unique approach. And a successful one. Little more than a decade later, over 100 of the Fortune 500 companies — including Du Pont, Kodak, General Mills, General Motors, and Motorola — had come to rely on QNX for their mission-critical applications.

Eventually, QNX Software Systems took the experience it had gleaned from the x86/PC platform and brought it to bear on multiple architectures, including ARM, MIPS, PowerPC, SH-4, and others. As a result, QNX technology now runs in everything from minivans to TV remotes to the highest-capacity Internet routers on the planet. But more on that in upcoming posts…


Gregg said...

I'd love to obtain one, simply for the fact that it confirms one good reason for participating in the community.

Namely the unusual applications that my hardware ideas need.

Ronen said...

I'm loving it! God I remember when PC's didn't have hard drives. Booting off one floppy to the second...

Doctor Who said...

I did that with my first PC, and also the Apple II family members I worked with.

Curiously enough its still a popular idea.

Paul N. Leroux said...

I remember booting off a 5.25 floppy, launching WordStar from the same floppy, and then saving a term paper onto the floppy. I'm guessing the floppy was single-sided and had a capacity of 360k.

Mind you, I'm not sure how much of this really happened and how much of it is the product of randomly firing neurons. :-)

- Paul

Mitchell Schoenbrun said...

I believe the computer in the picture is a 6502 processor machine that Dan and Gordon used to develop QNX. After the IBM PC came out, they began porting it. While it surely was the first, was it really a QNX computer? Did it run a pre-emptive kernel and support multi-tasking? Dan or Gordon would know.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Hi Mitchell. What you say re the processor jibes with what someone else has told me -- of course, I guess I should just ask Dan next time I see him in the hall. :-)

Good questions re preemptive kernel and multi-tasking. I'll try to ask about that as well.

By the way, we now have the machine under glass near the reception area of our new HQ in Kanata North.

fil said...

Still a kid at heart... I dream of a Amiga comeback powered by QNX!!

Doctor Who said...

Are more detailed photos available? Obviously a schematic does not exist......

Paul N. Leroux said...

Photos with more details aren't available, but, yes, it would be cool to publish some. I can't do this in the short term, but will add it to my to-do list.

- Paul