Sunday, June 16, 2024

OS Roundup: Looking Beyond Unix

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Bill Gates stepping down from running Microsoft marked the end of an era in the software industry, but it doesn’t mean that we’re about to see a sudden change.

That’s because things have been changing steadily over the last 30 years or so, ever since a young Bill Gates sent his furious “open letter to hobbyists,” which was published in February 1976 in the Homebrew Computer Club newsletter. What was he so apoplectic with rage about? Software piracy, that’s what. (Some things never change.) Gates couldn’t stand the fact that the BASIC he and Paul Allen had written for the Altair personal computer was being copied and shared by enthusiastic members of the club.

“As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?” he wrote.

The idea that software writing can be a business, and selling (or licensing) closed source operating systems is a perfectly moral and legitimate practice became two fundamental tenets upon which the Microsoft software empire was built.

But the philosophy that an OS — or any piece of software, for that matter — could be owned, bought or sold, struck many as immoral, and none more so than Richard Stallman, a Unix devotee and founder of the Free Software Foundation and GNU Project. To Stallman and his followers, writing code was a sacred act, a way of breathing life into computers.

The idea that someone could “own” a print routine or an OS was diabolical. As he saw it, software belonged to everyone, and it was there to be run, adapted, improved, used as a learning tool and shared for everyone’s benefit. To use Stallman’s own turn of phrase, software should be free, as in speech.

So in 1984 while Bill was busy building up Microsoft into a multi-billion dollar business and making himself the world’s richest man in the process, Stallman got stuck in to his GNU project, with the aim of developing a free and open source Unix-like OS for everyone to use and share. In many ways, GNU was the anti-Microsoft.

The major problem was although Stallman made spectacular progress with tools such as his GCC compiler, progress on the GNU HURD kernel was slow, and until the new OS had a kernel, there really was no OS.

Enter Linus Torvals with his famous Usenet posting in August 1991:

Hello everybody out there using minix -
I'm doing a (free) operating system 
(just a hobby, won't be big and professional
like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing 
since april, and is starting to get ready.I'd like any feedback on things people
 like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat 

This message heralded the start of collaborative work on what was to become the Linux kernel. Together with the fruits of the GNU project, it resulted in the GNU/Linux OS, which is usually referred to as Linux.

So now there are several alternatives when it comes to OSes. There are closed source, proprietary OSes such as Microsoft’s. There are free, open-source OSes, such as the many distributions of Linux. And there are open and proprietary Unix based-OSes, and other OSes as well.

Fast forward 17 years and many of the differences (especially the cultural ones) between these software models have blurred:

Linux has been adopted in the enterprise, and big vendors like IBM, HP, Sun, Novell and Red Hat are forging business out of supplying it to customers (usually by selling support packages and additional software tools.)

Selling Unix is still a viable business, usually with hardware to go with it. But rather than any of the grand old Unix names, the upstart Apple is arguably the only company expanding the Unix marketplace. (OS X is essentially Unix with an Apple GUI on top of it, and it’s to the consumer, not the enterprise marketplace, that it is successfully pushing its Unix OS.)

And what of Microsoft, in the post-Bill era? Here, something rather strange seems to be happening. Selling proprietary, packaged software has long been the cornerstone of the business, but now the company is talking about computing in the cloud, and services (albeit in the context of software and services). And whereas the company has traditionally sat on a mountain of cash and bought software companies to get its hand on their code, the most recent bid it made was for Yahoo!, a company noted for its range of content and advertising potential rather than any specific software technologies.

Unix as an OS for consumers and arty types? Open source OSes flogged by Big Blue and the suits at HP? Microsoft looking at community sites and cloud computing in preference to collecting license fees and chasing pirates? If you’d predicted that in 1976 you’d have been proclaimed barking mad and locked away in a padded cell. What on earth is going on?

No doubt about it, times are a-changing, and they have been for some time. Which is all a rather long-winded way of saying that if you are wondering why the name of this column has changed from Enterprise Unix Roundup to OS Roundup, it’s simply to recognize that fact and change as well.

In the coming months we’ll be looking at all enterprise OSes and monitoring the changes in the market as they happen. There’s no doubt, to quote Robert F. Kennedy, we live in interesting times.

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on
Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally
sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a
DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

This article was first published on

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