How AT&T, a Consent Decree, and a Bunch of Academia and Computer Compnaies Showed How to Collaborate

I'm currently reading "A Quarter Century of UNIX" by Peter Salus. It's a combination "I was there" and oral history of the genesis and adolescence of UNIX up until 1995. It describes the early days of UNIX where it was a Bell Laboratories "research project" (more like the quest of the folks at Bell Labs trying to get a usable computer that didn't suck). Part of that history is outlined on Wikipedia, but what's lacking from there is the stories of the different organizations that collaborated with each other. AT&T was bound under a Consent Decree from the 1950s that forbade AT&T and its subsidiaries from entering into any other markets. They took that to mean that they couldn't enter the computer market so they licensed their code (and the resulting C compiler that came about from developing Unix) to various schools and a handful of computer companies that were interested. What's absolutely fascinating to me is the collaboration that came about. Had AT&T been able to sell Unix we'd be talking about the rise of some other operating system as opposed to the proliferation of Unix and Unix-like systems. Unix was the product of hundreds (thousands?) of programmers working to make Unix and its toolchain into what they wanted. Some ideas were daft and didn't gain any traction, but others evolved into tools that are still in use today. Unix is the product of countless hours of evolution and perfection. No company on the planet can claim the kind of evolution that took place under Unix, and certainly not in those feverish years of the 1970s and 1980s (A notable exception might be Microsoft, but that's only because they've thrown gigabucks of cash at hiring thousands of programmers for their own petri-dish of an OS). It just boggles my mind to see that evolution take place. What's even better is you can download each of these snapshots in time, especially the earliest Unix Source Code release. There's even a source-code commentary that was widely pirated on copy machines around the world because there was some question to its legality (this was eventually released in paperback format as Lions' Commentary on UNIX 6th Edition with Source Code (along with the caveat "You are not expected to understand this").

All of this presaged the community that I was a part of in the 1990s and 2000s when the Linux community took shape with the collaborative spirit that we still enjoy today. It felt a lot like we were part of something bigger than ourselves. The early Unix community feels a lot like this. Folks just wanted to help others get stuff done as conveniently as possible and as effectively as possible. Compared with the other operating systems of the day (with the possible exception of VMS) Unix was amazing for its simplicity and power. I first imprinted on it on a Sun SPARCStation 1 (running SunOS 4.2ish IIRC). I didn't understand it at the time, but it was patiently waiting for me to learn it. And learn I did until I encountered Linux for the first time. Things were a bit crashy but it was the first time I realized I could have the power of that first SPARCStation for my own.

Unix is either 50+ years old or almost 50 years old (depending on when you count it's release). The fact that it's progeny have dominated the operating system landscape (with one notable exception, and no, it's not Amiga's OS) is mind-blowing. I'm not sure that the folks who were making tapes and installing and porting Unix on hardware it was never designed to be running on could have predicted its success. I'm sure when it hit 20+ machines they celebrated a minor achievement, but to have that number expanded by orders of magnitude is just remarkable.

I'll post a full review of the book later on (on this blog, because the reasons for that are yet-another-post), but I just wanted to highlight and acknowledge the early Unix Community, and the enduring community we have today with Linux, BSD, and others. There was something special going on and I'm proud to be a small part of it in my own way.