Tales In Tech History: Pick Operating System

Best OS you never heard of? Pick OS was initially developed to manage spare parts for attack helicopter during Vietnam war

Back in the 1980s there were many good old fashioned tech rivalries as evidenced by the IBM-compatible PC vs the Apple Mac (or Bill Gates vs Steve Jobs if you prefer), and of course Betamax versus VHS.

But in the business data processing sector in the 1980s, the main rivalry was between supporters of the Unix and Pick operating systems.

Both camps had their own dedicated sets of supporters, but Pick devotees claimed that their OS was a much better solution thanks to its superior information management capabilities.


Database Operating System

That is a pretty big claim for an operating system that most people have probably never heard of.

So lets provide a bit more information about this operating system.

In essence, Pick is a easy to use, portable, multi-user operating system with virtual memory and it boasted an English-like retrieval language in which a database manager, an extremely efficient programming language, user defined dictionaries, and system utilities were bundled in together.

It was widely accepted at the time as being the first database management system available on the commercial market, and its supporters say it is still one of the best.

But how did Pick start off? Well, the first thing to note is that the operating system was never called Pick until many years after its creation.


Indeed, the original program was initially built for tracking of spare parts for rocket engines at the huge military contractor TRW Systems in the United States.

But it was implemented in its first spec by Don Nelson and Richard (Dick) Pick as the Generalized Information Retrieval Language System (GIRLS) on an IBM System/360 in 1965.

This new operating system was adopted by the US Army to control the spare parts inventory of its Cheyenne attack helicopter in the 1960s, during the Vietnam war. The US Army renamed the project as General Information Management (GIM) and then Integrated Technical Data System or ITDS.

The US Army went on the record as saying that GIM (or ITDS) was “by far the finest generalized information management system in the country.”

Unfortunately, the US Army decided to scrap its Cheyenne helicopter project before the program was finished. The unfinished program therefore became public domain as it had been developed under the auspices of the US Department of Defense.

Dick Pick however continued to develop the OS as he believed he could copyright and market it.

The Pick OS eventually emerged into the commercial world with its first commercial release in 1973 by Microdata Corporation as the Reality Operating System.

This commercial launch happened after Dick Pick entered into an agreement with Microdata to implement his software concepts on its computers. In 1974, Microdata gained marketing rights and the Pick OS was then known simply as REALITY.

From 1970 to 1978 PICK was virtually the exclusive property of Microdata, but Dick Pick and Microdata fell out, and he left Microdata with the intention of pushing the OS to a wider audience.

What is the biggest incentive to use new technologies in the public sector?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Whats In A Name?

As expected, a lawsuit over the rights to the system quickly followed, and was settled out of court in 1981.

Under that deal, Microdata retained the exclusive rights to REALITY and its development on Microdata hardware.

However Dick Pick (and his firm Pick and Associates – now known as TigerLogic) had the rights to develop Pick and to port it onto many other computer systems.

Indeed, Dick Pick licensed Pick to a large variety of manufacturers and vendors in the 1980s, a few of whom opted to call Pick by a proprietary name.

General Automation for example called it Zebra. Applied Digital Data Systems called it Mentor, and the Ultimate Corp called it Ultimate.

By the early 1980s industry observers viewed the Pick operating system as a strong competitor to Unix. For example BYTE in 1984 said that “Pick is simple and powerful, and it seems to be efficient and reliable, too … because it works well as a multi-user system, it’s probably the most cost-effective way to use an XT”.

Some may argue that Pick was the best operating system that no one ever heard of. Indeed, an operating system that was highly portable and machine independent, incorporated an English-like retrieval language as user defined dictionaries and system utilities, made for a powerful proposition.

Sadly, Dick Pick never invested heavily in the marketing of the operating system, and he died in 1994 of stroke complications, aged just 56.

Without a driving force behind it, the Pick OS gradually faded away.

Quiz: What do you know about fibre broadband?