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,
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
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
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.
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
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
tool, and recruited developers via email and through
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
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
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.
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
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.
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