Thursday, January 10, 2019

Unix: 50 years

Willie Soon sent me a tweet by the Bell Labs:

Yes, as they discuss on the very informative Bell Labs web page, Unix was invented 50 years ago, in 1969. And because the Bell Labs were bought by Nokia – decades after the research center had earned six physics Nobel prizes and years after I wrote "Rip Bell Labs" – and I bought a couple of Nokia stocks a year ago (they are up 30%, which is rare), there's no reason not to overlook this history.

As also described on the History of Unix (Wikipedia), Unix was a privatized spinoff of an operating system called Multics – which is much less famous today. "Multi" means "many" while "uni" means "only one", so "Unix" was Brian Kernighan's pun on "Multics". At the beginning, it was spelled "Unics" and no one knows who invented the final spelling, "Unix".

The Multics system was supposed to be a much grander project – an unnecessarily huge project – and this was arguably one big reason why it had never succeeded. Unix collected all the things that really mattered and allowed a viable starting point, it has added some – and it succeeded a big deal. It brought a hierarchical file system, volumes that may be mounted and demounted, asynchronous processes with process memory, languages that may be picked separately by many users from 100 subsystems and dozens of languages.

The picture at the top shows Kenneth "ken" Lane Thompson (sitting) and Dennis Ritchie (standing), the two main inventors of Unix. They also invented other important things. For example, "ken" has invented a programming language B while Ritchie said it was almost right but not quite and invented C instead. That's why we have a C. Programming in C still looks like a rather modern activity – perhaps Millennials' activity – so it may be cute to realize that the inventor of C was born in 1941.

OK, the fathers of Unix have clearly privatized many ideas from the Multics project but began to work on a more realistic, smaller project. And they had a better motivation because privatization usually works to amplify the incentives. In 1971, there were internal releases of the system that was already completed. In 1973, the world was offered the new system and some institutions began to buy it.

In the 1980s, variations Solaris, HP-UX, and AIX were created – Solaris became the main survivor out of the three. In 1991, the work on Linux started and since the early 21st century, Linux almost completely eliminated all the other flavors of Unix. That success may be explained by the movement of the teenage nerds, I think. But it's very unfair that Linux became more famous than Unix itself – because Linux is clearly nothing else than plagiarism. Unix was a partial intellectual theft of Multics but they had to develop lots of new things to make Unix work – moreover, the fathers of Unix were mostly members of the Multics collaboration, anyway, so they were mostly robbing themselves which is less morally problematic.

Much of Linus Torvalds' excessive fame is due to the Linux movement's pride that he was capable of robbing the Unix and giving it to the movement. It reminds me of the Leninist fans' pride about the Rolls-Royce cars that they were capable of stealing for their top comrade Lenin. It seemed they hadn't fully realized that the great cars were showing that they and their system were inferior – the communist propaganda needed some extra decades to get this sensitive point.

Today, Unix still runs inside big servers but also inside smaller devices, the smartphones. Android is based on a modified Linux kernel while iOS, a spinoff of MacOS, is a "Unix-like" system, too (see a complex evolutionary tree). The importance of the invention for the modern world is staggering. Nevertheless, when Dennis Ritchie died in 2011, he had only had the money from the (generous) salary at AT&T, the owner of the Bell Labs before Nokia – which was still safely below one billion dollars.

The wealth is correlated with the contributions to the society but one must also appreciate how weak the correlation may be. Even most of the 150 people who are worth over $10 billion have done much less for the mankind than Dennis Ritchie has. Kenneth Thompson isn't a billionaire, either, but at least Kenneth Thomson without "p" was the richest Canadian at $20 billion.

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