On the History of the Unix Operating System
In the year 1969, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie led a team of programmers at Bell Labs to develop the Unix operating system, which was to be a successor to Multics. It proved to be a smashing success in the growing computing field and became the standard for operating systems for the next two decades. In the year 1991, a Finnish programmer by the name of Linus Torvalds had an itch to develop a Free and Open Source (FOSS) port of Unix, and announced his intentions on Usenet mailing lists, leading to a famous debate with one computer science professor, Andrew Tanenbaum.
We today know Linux as the root of the Android operating system, dominant in the tablet and smartphone market by as much as 85%. But what many people don’t realize is the huge amount of other attempts that were made to create the perfect Unix-like operating system. Like settlers braving the snow to lead a wagon trail out west, the early days of computing marked many attempts to forge a settlement in the digital wild west, and many met defeat. The players in this epic saga might surprise you.
So What Was Wrong With Unix?
The problem with Unix was that it was snarled up in legal tangles. While Unix was widely adopted by the 1980s because of its portability and universal application – only 20,000 lines of code, mostly in C, most of it not machine-dependent – obtaining it was a pain. First, it was only distributable in source-code form, and not officially supported by AT&T. Then there was the infamous 1983 U.S. Department of Justice antitrust case against AT&T, settled by splitting up the company. This freed AT&T to begin commercial licensing of Unix as a binary product, but also irked many in the computing world who had begun to think of Unix as an open-source product.
And who could blame them? Early business law spent decades in clumsy missteps trying to figure out how to legally treat the concept of software. Code was a written medium, so should it be copyrighted like a poem? It operated machines to make them do things, so should it be patented like machinery? But at its basic element, source code was nothing more than a set of instructions on a computer, which judges and lawyers at the time thought of more as “calculator” than today’s multimedia machines – so should source code simply be in the public domain, like a mathematical formula?
As a system, Unix was destined to become a corporate orphan, with courtroom fights raging over its ownership lasting to this very day. The legal provisions of the antitrust settlement at Bell Systems prevented it from selling Unix to end users; it could only sell licenses to sell Unix to other corporations. In any case, many computer enthusiasts in both the public and private sector sought to free the spirit of Unix from its legal shackles. It’s kind of touching, really, how much goofy affection everybody had for Unix at first.
Plan Nine From Bell Labs
The name of this system pulls you in first. Surely, this is a joke? No commercial company would put out an operating system with a name based on Plan Nine From Outer Space, a movie which is one of the most notoriously bad turkeys produced by Ed Wood?
The look and feel of the Plan Nine operating system is even more startling than its name. You can type or edit text anywhere there’s a screen, and if it’s a command you’re typing, you can middle-click on it to execute it right on the spot. You get a screen shot not from a utility in a menu, but from piping/dev/screen to a file. You don’t get a menu at all. You type a program’s name in any window and execute it, and the window then becomes whatever program you told it to run. View a man page, and the whole text just dumps into whatever you were doing. The window manager, rio, can actually run instances of itself embedded inside itself, so you can make Inception jokes. The ‘cut’ part of ‘cut and paste’ is named ‘snarf’ instead. It’s the most alien software platform ever created, as if an alternate universe portal opened to give us a glimpse of computing in the fifth dimension. It also takes a while for your computing habits to return to normal after running Plan Nine for awhile.
Plan Nine From Bell Labs is indeed the “sequel,” so to speak, to Unix, developed likewise by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie. They intended the system to be more of a research platform than an end-user product. They hit this mark with flying colors, as nobody outside of universities and the occasional server-room guru seems to know it exists. The original Unix had the philosophy of treating objects like a file wherever possible, but Plan Nine initiates you into the way of thinking where “everything is a file” applies always, even where it’s impossible. The mouse is a file, the screen is a file, the user is a file. Thompson and Ritchie sought in Plan Nine to fix what they saw as short-comings of Unix, and in the process made many arguable improvements, but also produced a rift in the space-time continuum.
If you seek out Plan Nine today, you can find it in its modern-day equivalent of Inferno by Lucent Technologies. Just be careful talking to the Plan Nine natives. Their following is tiny, but passionate.
Go ahead, ask anybody in the office what Microsoft’s first operating system was. You’ll win a lot of lunch bets this way. Back before Windows became the standard, Bell Labs sold a Unix license to Microsoft, which in turn slapped the name Xenix on it over howls of protest from the marketing department and began distributing it to the usual OEMs, which, in 1980, mostly comprised the PDP market. End-user distributors included IBM, Altos, SCO, and Tandy. Yes, the Tandy TRS-80, now legendary in hacker guru circles, ran Xenix. Tandy, affiliated with the Radio Shack chain of retail stores, was one of the front-runners of the late ’70s/early ’80s home-computer revolution, when computers were marketed on television by the likes of Bill Cosby, Bill Bixby, and a doddering Charlie Chaplin impersonator. Walk into a Radio Shack today and ask about Tandy, then watch the blank reactions.
Microsoft eventually sold Xenix off to SCO-Group, and now you know the beginnings of the SCO-IBM eternal lawsuit. Microsoft seemed apt to get out of the Unix business altogether, but would go on to co-develop the IBM-OS series of operating systems before starting on their own DOS and later Windows.
BSD isn’t so much rightly called a free implementation of Unix as it is Unix’s cousin. It stands for Berkeley Software Distribution, originating from the University of California at Berkeley. But due to the licensing complications of Bell Labs’ Unix, the code base was freely shared and swapped back and forth between Berkeley and Bell Labs, the latter of which would periodically re-merge BSD code into the Unix core. Of all the Unix variants, BSD sticks the closest to being true-blue Unix.
Out of all the also-rans in the race against Linux to be the standard Unix, BSD is also the closest to a surviving live system today. It’s still actively developed, thanks to its infamous BSD license, which basically boils down to “we don’t care what you do with this code as long as you don’t bother us when it breaks.” BSD, in one form or another (it’s been FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD), is actively running on home and commercial computing centers to this day as well. Among many innovations, at the time when the computing divide was between Unix System V and BSD in universities, BSD won out because it was the first to integrate an Internet protocol system. Furthermore, BSD begat FreeBSD, which begat NEXTSTEP, which begat Mac OS X, the modern Apple computer operating system. Thus, as Linux is to Android, so is BSD to Apple.
BSD, perhaps influenced by Berkeley culture, also has a racier, hackier reputation. In the first place, there’s “Beastie,” the BSD mascot, a cute devil in sneakers wielding a pitchfork. More than one BSD fan has been mistaken for a Satanist, and they don’t seem to much mind. BSD distributions include names like GhostBSD and MidnightBSD, suggesting a streetwise cyberpunk vibe. Linux’s mascot is a soft cuddly penguin; BSD’s mascot is an armed demon, and guess which system ends up with the hardcore users?
A big question looms: If BSD is better than I Can’t Believe It’s Not Unix, why did Linux beat it out in popularity? For one thing, just as Unix was tied up in legal foibles, BSD was also the subject of lawsuits between Berkeley and AT&T. While the lawsuit was demonstrably resolved in Berkeley’s favor, Linux had time to gain ground. Torvalds, as the head of Linux, also had the unique leadership skills to ensure Linux remained free and open. The GNU license is partly responsible for Linux’s survival, as it’s the only software license that basically makes the code base into its own sovereign nation.
Speaking of ol’ GNU, what was Richard M. Stallman up to during all these shenanigans? Since he was the guy who led the charge to make a free (as in freedom!) Unix and authored the GNU GPL which breathes life into so much software today, why wasn’t he heading a derivative Unix version himself? The answer is that he was doing just that. Slowly. Deliberately. Determinedly. Not compromising a fraction of a centimeter on his principles. Have you ever worked with someone who refuses to compromise a fraction of a centimeter on their principles? Their virtue is admirable, but how fast do they get work done? That’s how fast Richard Stallman works.
Poor Stallman. He never set out to become a knight templar for computing liberty, he only wanted the printer to work. Yes, in 1980 while working for the MIT AI Lab, Stallman and others in his department just wanted to improve the newly-purchased Xerox 9700 so it would ping users when their print job was finished. But for the first time, a proprietary software license told him he could not do that, and that set him on the lifelong course of being the computing liberty crusader.
You can, indeed, download and run a release, so to speak, of GNU HURD. It works well enough, if you like running terminal-only. It certainly runs Emacs, which is half an operating system already. The GNU utilities like gcc are all part of every major Linux distro. The problem is that refusing to compromise has proved to be daunting to development. For instance, insisting on 0% compromise with proprietary technology locks you out of simple things like fonts, hardware support, removable media support, and a whole lot of graphical interface support. In areas where GNU software is unfettered by proprietary restrictions, it’s the best of its kind. But instead of becoming the dominant Unix-alike, it became borrowed piecemeal by Linux and other FOSS systems, which is why to this day GNU cultists insist that Linux is actually “GNU-Linux,” and most everybody just shrugs at that. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride – that’s GNU.
There’s one last footnote in the FOSS Unix race. Anybody with a STEM degree who’s so much as booted a Linux distro probably knows about the infamous 1992 Usenet debate between Andrew S. Tanenbaum and Linux Torvalds. Tanenbaum and Torvalds argued back and forth over microkernel versus macrokernel and other operating system design philosophies. Tanenbaum was a professor at the time and developed Minix purely as a hobby, by his own admission, and a teaching tool for his students to tinker with. History has since shown that arguing with Torvalds over the Internet about software is about as wise as poking a hungry grizzly with a sharp stick while rubbing meat tenderizer on your body. Torvalds is famous for eviscerating people over technology issues and even professor Tanenbaum was no exception. Nevertheless, they’re still friends. Torvalds, luckily enough, has been validated a thousand times over; If he’s harsh, it’s because he’s been right about everything all along and had a hard time convincing everybody.
Minix, at the time, had a stronger argument. Tanenbaum’s logic was that a microkernal is less hardware dependent and can run on cheaper hardware – in other words, the hardware his students were using. But this has become a non-issue over the years, because Moore’s law was on Torvalds’ side. Today, even the cheapest smartphone available is many times more powerful than the iron rigs students in the 1990s were running.
Like the other systems here, you can download and run a Minux distro. Make no mistake, Tanenbaum is a teacher first and is a highly respected author and lecturer, and his system does boot and run, but it’s more like the GNU HURD than Linux because, once again, it picked a restrictive philosophy.
The Unix Legacy…
Is Unix the perfection of operating system design? It seems to be a contender, since even Microsoft MS-DOS was modeled after CP/M, which was inspired by Unix. The saga of Unix is the soul incarnate of the computer revolution and the information age, and there’s never a time when it won’t be relevant. At the end of the 1982 film Tron, after the MCP is defeated, the core’s bulk slowly spins down until it’s revealed to have a core of an old teletype machine from the dawn of computing. And in the same way, no matter how many layers of abstraction we lay over technology as we design shiny new toys, Unix is always at the core.
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