30 years of QNX: A true windowing system in 2MB of RAM

QNX Windows made its debut in 1990, back when most desktop PCs still used DOS. Amazingly, it could run on 16-bit 286 machines in just 2MB of RAM — and we're talking a true windowing system, not a simple graphics library.

Developers used QNX Windows for a variety of mission-critical applications, including mail-sorting machines for the US Postal Service and a statistical process control system for a Motorola semiconductor fab. In fact, a few of these systems, first deployed in the early 90s, are still running.

The look-and-feel for QNX Windows was based on the OPEN LOOK standard, which embraced the notion that the application, not the windowing system, should be the focus of the user's attention. As a result, the overall look was clean and unfussy —even the color palette was self-effacing.

Here, for example, is a dialog window from the QNX Windows file manager (sorry, I don't have a color version available):

Click to enlarge

Several years after its introduction, QNX Windows was replaced by the QNX Photon microGUI — more on that in a subsequent post. In more recent years, QNX expanded its GUI offerings yet again, with support for Adobe Flash Lite and hardware-accelerated 3D graphics based on OpenGL ES. The company has even won an Adobe MAX award for bringing Flash-based GUIs to the automobile.

What, you want me to draw the screen captures!?
I wrote the user guide for QNX Windows. Unfortunately for me, no one had yet developed a screen-capture utility for QNX Windows, for the simple reason that the windowing system was still under construction. So I had to create all the screen illustrations in Corel Draw instead.

Using Rundos, a DOS emulator, I drew the images on my QNX-based 386SX desktop machine, which then saved the files to a hard drive installed on a remote 286 machine. QNX distributed processing allowed the machines to share resources in peer-to-peer fashion. It was kind of like cloud computing, but without the cloud. :-)


Bob said...

I have one of the few ...running since 1994!

Paul N. Leroux said...

Awesome! Are you at liberty to say what kind of system it is?

- Paul

Bob said...

A multi-node networked data acquisition and control system for a ramjet test facility.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Très cool! If you'd ever like to do a guest blog on it, contact me at paull[at]qnx.com

- Paul

Anonymous said...

My former employer still has several dozen QNX Windows 4.21 nodes, as well as over 200 QNX 4.25 nodes w/o GUI. They are process control systems for chemical plants. As late as 2004, we still had a system running QNX2!

Paul N. Leroux said...

Very cool. There would probably be more QNX 2 systems still running, if were not for the fact that the hardware systems they run on wear out.