Dec 27, 2010

From Floppy to Flash: The New QNX Flash Demo

Long ago and far away, a little company called QNX Software Systems (QSS) had a tiny operating system. It was so tiny it ran on things like wristwatches, hospital machinery, and remote-controlled cars. So small was QNX that QSS decided to show off with a one-of-a-kind floppy disk demo.

About a dozen years later, QNX is doing it again. Thank to some new features in its newly-released QNX 6.5, QSS is distributing 256 MB flash drives with a full, working install of QNX 6.5 with multi-core support. But let's look back at the forerunner to this project.

The original demo ran QNX4—QNX 4.25 to be exact—from a floppy complete with a file manager, TCP stack, and a web browser and allowed the user to actually browse the Internet if they had a 386 or better with a floppy drive. The floppy demo debuted in 1997 and got networking support in 1999, quite impressive for its time.

Even more impressive was this demo compared to QNX's competitors at the time: Windows 98 and Mac OS 8. Windows 98's floppy version was nothing more than DOS and some formatting utilities that got nowhere near a GUI, let alone Internet access. Mac OS 8 was a little better, and since there was no non-GUI Mac OS it booted into the desktop. It had some some disk repair utilities but again no Internet access.

Almost a decade later, the computing industry is at an impasse: the days of the PC are over, with personal devices like smart-phones and tablets gaining ground quickly. In fact, RIM's PlayBook is one such device that runs a version of QNX, Tablet OS. But QNX development will happen on the standard PC for quite some time, and to that end QSS isn't ignoring the platform.

Far from it, in fact. The QNX Flash Demo, as QSS is calling it, is a full self-hosted development environment. Not only can you boot from it, check your email, send some instant messages, and gaze wondering at, but you can start the IDE and pump out some code.

The requirements are—or is, rather—a BIOS supporting Live USB. That's it. Any system that meets that requirement is bound to have beefier specs, since most PCs supporting USB booting are of early 2006 vintage or newer. So the QNX Flash Demo is effectively optimized for a 2 GHz/1GB system, but if you manage to get it working on something slower it's just fine. Just don't expect light-speed compiles.

Writing will kill your flash drive faster than normal, but you're not likely to notice unless you run from your flash drive all the time. Since the demo is meant for peeking and poking but not serious full-time work, this isn't really a concern. In a nod to developers, however, it's totally possible to do so.

I ran a full-service development system for a month before I realized that I needed my flash drive for transferring some illicit MP3s, and I merely copied my changes to the hard drive and booted from there. The hard drive was a bit faster, but overall the flash drive experience was comparable. After all, we are talking about QNX, which does have some daily-use limitations.

To install the QNX Flash Demo, visit and download the free flash drive image. The file is self-installing, so just double-click and have a flash drive in your favorite USB port.

While it might not actually be worth running all the time, the QNX Flash Demo is an interesting technology demonstration that hints at what RIM's PlayBook and Tablet OS are doing full-time today. Who knows? Maybe if you get the bug you'll install it and try developing.


  1. That is very interesting. I was looking for this flash version. but i couldn't find it on the link you've put in the article.
    any other links?

  2. Where can I download this in the link you put up?