Unix turns 40: The past, present and future of a revolutionary OS

After four decades, the future of the operating system is clouded, but its legacy will endure.

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The Unix Wars

In the mid-'80s, users, including the federal government, complained that while Unix was in theory a single, portable operating system, in fact it was anything but. Vendors paid lip service to the complaint but worked night and day to lock in customers with custom Unix features and APIs.

In 1987, Unix System Laboratories, a part of Bell Labs at the time, began working with Sun on a system that would unify the two major Unix branches. The product of their collaboration, called Unix System V Release 4.0, was released two years later and combined features from System V Release 3, BSD, SunOS and Microsoft's Xenix.

Other Unix vendors feared the AT&T/Sun alliance. The various parties formed competing "standards" bodies with names like X/Open, Open Software Foundation, Unix International and Corporation for Open Systems. The arguments, counter-arguments and accomplishments of these groups would fill a book, but they all claimed the high road to a unified Unix while taking potshots at each other.

In an unpublished paper written in 1988 for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the noted minicomputer pioneer Gordon Bell said this of the just-formed Open Software Foundation, which included IBM, HP, DEC and others allied against the AT&T/Sun partnership: "OSF is a way for the Unix have-nots to get into the evolving market, while maintaining their high-margin code museums.'"

The Unix Wars failed to settle differences or set a true standard for the operating system. But in 1993, the Unix community received a wakeup call from Microsoft in the form of Windows NT, an enterprise-class, 32-bit multiprocessing operating system. The proprietary NT was aimed squarely at Unix and was intended to extend Microsoft's desktop hegemony to the data center and other places owned by the likes of Sun servers.

Microsoft users applauded. Unix vendors panicked. All the major Unix rivals united in an initiative called the Common Open Software Environment, and the following year more or less laid down their arms by merging the AT&T/Sun-backed Unix International group with the Open Software Foundation. That coalition evolved into today's The Open Group, certifier of Unix systems and owner of the Single Unix Specification, now the official definition of "Unix."

As a practical matter, these developments may have "standardized" Unix about as much as possible, given the competitive habits of vendors. But they may have come too late to stem a flood tide called Linux, the open-source operating system that grew out of Prof. Tanenbaum's Minix.

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