I've been on a quest to rank every major Operating System release – on a 50 point scale – to determine, once and for all, what the best Operating System of all time is.
Today we're going to be looking at a system that is, in my opinion, rather special.
So. What is DESQview/X? Many people, in 2020, may have never even heard of this system from the mid-1990s.
Its predecessor, DESQview (without the “/X”) which was first released in 1985, was a multi-tasking, windowing system for DOS. It allowed someone, with very modest PC hardware, to run multiple text-mode DOS applications at the same time. With overlaping, resizable windows.
This multitasking wasn't the cooperative multi-tasking that we saw in early Windows (through 3.11) and MacOS up through version 9. No siree bob. DESQview had true, preemptive multi-tasking. Fast. Stable. Lightweight. It was downright impressive.
But it was all text-mode.
Then DESQview/X came along, in the 1990s, bringing a complete X11 (aka X Windows) graphical interface with it.
To give you an idea of what this system is capable of, here's just a quick run-down of some of the features of DESQview/X:
Full, preemptive multitasking.
A complete X Window system with:
- Overlapping, resizable, movable windows.
- The ability to act as an X11 client (run X Windows applications running on another computer, such as a UNIX/Linux box).
- The ability to act as an X11 server (allowing another X Windows client to run applications on the DESQview/X computer).
The ability to run DOS applications.
The ability to run a complete instance of Windows 3.1x as a movable, resizable X11 window.
An SDK for building (and porting from other systems) X11 applications.
- Including networking applications, like early Web Browsers.
Many might make the case that DESQview/X is not actually an Operating System. It does, after all, sit on top of DOS (much like early versions of Windows).
I would posit, that doesn't do DESQview/X justice.
A preemptive multitasking system, capable of running DOS, Windows, local X11, and remote X11 applications? I mean. Wow. That's more power than many other Operating Systems even of today. So, yes. DESQview/X is an OS. Just one that also needs DOS.
Before we dive into the scores, let's do a quick re-cap of how the scoring works.
There are five categories. Each is worth 10 points:
Enjoyability: How much fun is the OS to use?
Polish: How polished is the experience?
Immortality: How well does the system run now… and how well will it run in the future?
Importance: How important (technologically, culturally, or historically) is the OS?
Wildcard: 10 Points that can be awarded for other reasons (with the idea that each system is unique).
Here we go. Score time.
Enjoyability – Score: 8 / 10
I'll put this simply: DESQview/X is easy and fun to use.
Tap the ALT key on the keyboard, and up pops a global system menu. From there you can launch applications, manage the window layout, close applications, and the like.
Just about everything (including rezing and moving windows) can be done entirely from a keyboard without ever touching a mouse. The mouse works everywhere, but you don't need to take your hands off the keyboard if you don't want to.
I love that.
Add to that the ability to run DOS, Windows 3.1, and X Windows applications… it's just so much goshdarned fun.
Oh. Fun little thing.
DESQview/X works as an X11 server, right?
And it can run an entire instance of Windows 3.1 as an X11 window, right?
Think about that for a moment. If you have a DOS + Windows 3.1 + DESQview/X computer somewhere… you can run Windows 3.1 applications on your UNIX-y box, acting as an X11 client.
Cool, right? I tell ya. This system is fun.
Polish – Score: 7 / 10
Here's something crazy…
DESQview/X is the easiest X11 based system I've ever installed. Seamless, fast, almost impossible to mess up installation process.
It also ranks as the easiest X Windows based system to learn that I've ever used. Launching applications. Managing windows. Without the slightest bit of documentation, a user can figure out how to use most aspects of the system (including the keyboard shortcuts) without no more than about 4 or 5 minutes.
Immortality – Score: 8 / 10
DESQview/X runs well in 2020 – I'm running it, right now (to really kick the tires here), on two older computers (one 486 and one Pentium) as well as within a virtual machine.
All have been running excellently.
My only complaint here would be a simple one that other systems receive now as well…
Because DESQview/X was developed by a company that no longer exists – and the software is not open source – the development of support for newer hardware has ended. While this doesn't present much of an issue when using VMs or older hardware, it would be quite nice to be able to run this using newer graphics cards, be able to user larger amounts of RAM, and the like.
I would have given a slightly lower score here for the Immortality category… but the fact that this can be used as a thin client to run remote X11 applications from darn near any DOS computer? That increases the usability of this system in modern times significantly.
Importance – Score: 2 / 10
As cool, fun, and powerful as DESQview/X is… it doesn't exactly have a lasting impact. I know of nobody that actively uses this system now, in 2020. I'm sure someone exists… but I doubt many.
With the popularity of the competition (namely Microsoft Windows), DESQview/X also doesn't hold a place of high nostalgia value.
Wildcard – Score: 9 / 10
X11 (both client and server). DOS. Windows 3.1. Preemptive. Multiple (old-school) window managers. This system really hits a lot of the things I absolutely love.
If this OS were open source – or had an active community building new hardware and software support for it – the score would have been even higher.
Oh, and it's got xeyes. It's got xeyes, people!
Total – Score 34 / 50
Woah. 34 points. DESQview/X 2.1 is now in a three-way tie for second place.
I honestly did not anticipate that when I sat down to start evaluating and scoring this system. Sure, I expected it to at least not be at the bottom of the rankings – based solely on some of the unique features – but this little OS has truly impressed me.
In a big way.
If just a few things had been different… if it had the source code available, or an active developer community… DESQview/X could have taken the crown.
Here's the updated rankings.
36 Points - MS-DOS 6.22
34 Points - DESQview/X 2.1
34 Points - Windows 3.11
34 Points - Microsoft BASIC 80 for TRS-80 Model 100
33 Points - Macintosh System Software 6.0.8
33 Points - Microsoft Windows 2000
30 Points - Ubuntu 5.10
29 Points - IBM OS/2 Warp 4
13 Points - Microsoft Windows 1.0
Next time, we'll be going back in time. Back to 1986…
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