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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Origins and History of Unix, 1969-1995 - Blows against the Empire: 1991-1995

Blows against the Empire: 1991-1995

The first glimmer of light in the darkness was the 1990 effort by William Jolitz to port BSD onto a 386 box, publicized by a series of magazine articles beginning in 1991. The 386BSD port was possible because, partly influenced by Stallman, Berkeley hacker Keith Bostic had begun an effort to clean AT&T proprietary code out of the BSD sources in 1988. But the 386BSD project took a severe blow when, near the end of 1991, Jolitz walked away from it and destroyed his own work. There are conflicting explanations, but a common thread in all is that Jolitz wanted his code to be released as unencumbered source and was upset when the corporate sponsors of the project opted for a more proprietary licensing model.

In August 1991 Linus Torvalds, then an unknown university student from Finland, announced the Linux project. Torvalds is on record that one of his main motivations was the high cost of Sun's Unix at his university. Torvalds has also said that he would have joined the BSD effort had he known of it, rather than founding his own. But 386BSD was not shipped until early 1992, some months after the first Linux release.

The importance of both these projects became clear only in retrospect. At the time, they attracted little notice even within the Internet hacker culture — let alone in the wider Unix community, which was still fixated on more capable machines than PCs, and on trying to reconcile the special properties of Unix with the conventional proprietary model of a software business.

It would take another two years and the great Internet explosion of 1993–1994 before the true importance of Linux and the open-source BSD distributions became evident to the rest of the Unix world. Unfortunately for the BSDers, an AT&T lawsuit against BSDI (the startup company that had backed the Jolitz port) consumed much of that time and motivated some key Berkeley developers to switch to Linux.

Code copying and theft of trade secrets was alleged. The actual infringing code was not identified for nearly two years. The lawsuit could have dragged on for much longer but for the fact that Novell bought USL from AT&T and sought a settlement. In the end, three files were removed from the 18,000 that made up the distribution, and a number of minor changes were made to other files. In addition, the University agreed to add USL copyrights to about 70 files, with the stipulation that those files continued to be freely redistributed.

-- Marshall Kirk McKusick

The settlement set an important precedent by freeing an entire working Unix from proprietary control, but its effects on BSD itself were dire. Matters were not helped when, in 1992–1994, the Computer Science Research Group at Berkeley shut down; afterwards, factional warfare within the BSD community split it into three competing development efforts. As a result, the BSD lineage lagged behind Linux at a crucial time and lost to it the lead position in the Unix community.

The Linux and BSD development efforts were native to the Internet in a way previous Unixes had not been. They relied on distributed development and Larry Wall's patch(1) tool, and recruited developers via email and through Usenet newsgroups. Accordingly, they got a tremendous boost when Internet Service Provider businesses began to proliferate in 1993, enabled by changes in telecomm technology and the privatization of the Internet backbone that are outside the scope of this history. The demand for cheap Internet was created by something else: the 1991 invention of the World Wide Web. The Web was the “killer app” of the Internet, the graphical user interface technology that made it irresistible to a huge population of nontechnical end users.

The mass-marketing of the Internet both increased the pool of potential developers and lowered the transaction costs of distributed development. The results were reflected in efforts like XFree86, which used the Internet-centric model to build a more effective development organization than that of the official X Consortium. The first XFree86 in 1992 gave Linux and the BSDs the graphical-user-interface engine they had been missing. Over the next decade XFree86 would lead in X development, and an increasing portion of the X Consortium's activity would come to consist of funneling innovations originated in the XFree86 community back to the Consortium's industrial sponsors.

By late 1993, Linux had both Internet capability and X. The entire GNU toolkit had been hosted on it from the beginning, providing high-quality development tools. Beyond GNU tools, Linux acted as a basin of attraction, collecting and concentrating twenty years of open-source software that had previously been scattered across a dozen different proprietary Unix platforms. Though the Linux kernel was still officially in beta (at 0.99 level), it was remarkably crash-free. The breadth and quality of the software in Linux distributions was already that of a production-ready operating system.

A few of the more flexible-minded among old-school Unix developers began to notice that the long-awaited dream of a cheap Unix system for everybody had snuck up on them from an unexpected direction. It didn't come from AT&T or Sun or any of the traditional vendors. Nor did it rise out of an organized effort in academia. It was a bricolage that bubbled up out of the Internet by what seemed like spontaneous generation, appropriating and recombining elements of the Unix tradition in surprising ways.

Elsewhere, corporate maneuvering continued. AT&T divested its interest in Sun in 1992; then sold its Unix Systems Laboratories to Novell in 1993; Novell handed off the Unix trademark to the X/Open standards group in 1994; AT&T and Novell joined OSF in 1994, finally ending the Unix wars. In 1995 SCO bought UnixWare (and the rights to the original Unix sources) from Novell. In 1996, X/Open and OSF merged, creating one big Unix standards group.

But the conventional Unix vendors and the wreckage of their wars came to seem steadily less and less relevant. The action and energy in the Unix community were shifting to Linux and BSD and the open-source developers. By the time IBM, Intel, and SCO announced the Monterey project in 1998 — a last-gasp attempt to merge One Big System out of all the proprietary Unixes left standing — developers and the trade press reacted with amusement, and the project was abruptly canceled in 2001 after three years of going nowhere.

The industry transition could not be said to have completed until 2000, when SCO sold UnixWare and the original Unix source-code base to Caldera — a Linux distributor. But after 1995, the story of Unix became the story of the open-source movement. There's another side to that story; to tell it, we'll need to return to 1961 and the origins of the Internet hacker culture.



[13] Ken Thompson reminded me that today's cellphones have more RAM than the PDP-7 had RAM and disk storage combined; a large disk, in those days, was less than a megabyte of storage.

[14] There is a Web FAQ on the PDP computers that explains the otherwise extremely obscure PDP-7's place in history.

[15] The version 7 manuals can be browsed on-line at http://plan9.bell-labs.com/7thEdMan/index.html.

[16] UUCP was hot stuff when a fast modem was 300 baud.

[17] The PS/2 did, however, leave one mark on later PCs — they made the mouse a standard peripheral, which is why the mouse connector on the back of your chassis is called a “PS/2 port”.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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