The systems world will shortly be celebrating a major anniversary milestone. UNIX® is turning 40 years old! Most of us know the story of how UNIX was born, but what about why? Was it born strictly because its founders wanted to play a computer game on a different platform? And why does UNIX continue to thrive 15 years after an (in)famous Byte Magazine article that asked, "Is UNIX dead?"
Good questions for systems architects. You might not want to study Unix, but you should in your time study the full evolution of a few systems, and compare and contrast: why did this one succeed and others fail? Surprisingly, the reasons are generally different each time. It's almost as if the gods of the market learn and spite us if we copy the past successes, each time.
The very early story:
Ken Thompson developed a game on the GE-645 mainframe called Space Travel. Unfortunately, the game was just running too slow on the GE box, so Thompson rewrote (in assembly) the game for DEC's PDP-7, with the help of Dennis Ritchie. The porting experience led Ken to develop a new OS for the PDP-7. This included a file system as well as the new multi-tasking operating system itself. They included a command-line interpreter and some small utility programs.
The project was originally named Unics, and it could eventually support two simultaneous users, which led to some financial support from Bell. In 1970, UNIX became the official name for the operating system, which ran on the PDP-11/20. It also included roff (a text formatting program) and a text editor.
The things to drag out of that is: Very Small Team. No Corporate Direction. And, they did what they needed. What did they need? Roff. Which was used for preparing papers ... which just happens to have been what all academic institutions need from their computers (above all other needs).
Ultimately, it was rewritten in C in 1973, which made it portable and changed the history of operating systems.
OK, sort of. More clearly, it made it readable. So when Computer Science departments started installing it, they found themselves with a readable, understandable and advanced operating system. What does that mean? Teaching! Unix became a favourite in the Universities because it gave a full pedagogical experience. Which lead to a generation of engineers in the early 1980s demanding it.
The portability came later, because these engineers want it. In practice, the first port off PDP-11s was done in Wollongong, as an academic exercise. But in the mid 1980s, the cost of hardware had come down, and the cost of software was rapidly rising. At the crossing point was a demand for a cheap operating system, and this meant "one you didn't have to write yourself" (curiously echoed by Bill Gates' purchase of QDOS for $50k.)
Unix took over the market for all challengers to IBM, because they couldn't beat IBM on its ability to invest in software. See _The Soul of a new Computer_ for a counterpoint, a book every architect should read. Or to be fair, Unix took over "sophisticated" end of the market, and MS-DOS took over the "basic PS" end. Between them, they destroyed IBM -- to then the greatest tech company ever -- in a single decade.
IBM of course fought back in the 1990s, and adopted Unix as well. However, marketing games roll on. In this article, IBM adopts the "licensed" view of what Unix is, which is either polite to the licensors or deceptive depending on who butters your bread. It misses out the other two gorillas in the room: BSD on Mac and Linux. Does anyone have any figures on operating systems revenues for Mac OSX 10 and Linux family?
Compare the chart in the IBM article to the one posted a month back.
Why does Unix live on? In part because it can do the serious things, in part because it is simply available, and in part its history was so much more oriented to the net, and it has gradually evolved to be good for it. Whereas the main competitor comes from the user-interface world, and eschewed the net in its core principles until 2002. During the 2000s, Microsoft lost a lot of ground because of security and lack of openness, ground that others were well prepared to take up. To read Sun Tzu:
The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.
Patience also is necessary. Why think about these things? Because the same battles are being fought out today. As in the charts here, but also between facebook and myspace, between blue-ray and HD-DVD, between the gold currencies, between the rebel currencies and the banks, between old media and the new. In each of these battles, the same factors emerge, as do winners and losers, and the only easy way to predict that future is to really study the examples of the past.
(Yes, there are harder and more expensive ways to learn, such as playing it yourself.)Posted by iang at December 3, 2009 08:16 AM | TrackBack