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The UNIX Question

By Duane Gustavus, UNIX Research Analyst

Having just completed my fifty-third trip around the sun, I am not surprised to find that in a world of change, some problems are remarkably persistent. It has been many years since my Mom first asked me to explain what UNIX was so she could tell her friends when they asked about my new job. Since she had never heard the term software before, we had to settle for something like "he works with computers". I have sometimes tried to imagine the kinds of images this conjured up in the minds of her contemporaries. Now almost everyone I meet owns a computer, but I still find myself in similar straights when I try to answer the UNIX question.

On the other hand, does that really matter? Aren't there areas of specialized knowledge in every subject that are not expected to be of interest to the uninitiated? I know I have employed that argument many times with my teenaged godchild when fashion priorities dominate conversation. Perhaps I am too close to the issue to retain a catholic perspective, but let me try to explain why I think it is worth knowing a little about UNIX, even if you never intend to use it.

I might as well admit at this point that I am going to have to turn the "way back" dial to the Ancient History setting (say twenty years ago). I will try to be brief in my reminiscences of bygone eras, but it is necessary to set some context to make the point. The house lights dim; Stravinsky fades in as the curtain rises on a scene straight out of the Dawn of the Age of Information . . .

In the beginning . . .

UNIX began life as a research project in a large corporation. Since it did not follow the accepted wisdom for computer products at the time, UNIX appeared to have little relevance outside of computer research (meaning nobody concerned could see much potential for making money off of it). For some time further work was only pursued at a few academic sites, notably the University of California at Berkeley. Over the ensuing years, UNIX developed a small but dedicated following as an alternative computing environment to the centralized mainframe model which held sway at the time (this was the age of dinosaurs remember; personal computers hadn't evolved yet). The primary reason UNIX prospered was that research often involves working in a new way; the flexibility allowed by access to the source code -- so you can change the way things work -- is often more important in research than the availability of lots of business applications.

From its earliest development stages, therefore, UNIX has been the focus of a group who were more interested in the "technology" of UNIX than the marketing of a product. This has made an interesting (dare I
say a vital) difference between UNIX and other currently popular
computing environments. As time passed and UNIX "grew" it was adopted as the native computer environment by several hardware vendors, but it's popularity was constrained by the fact that it required significant hardware resource to provide reasonable performance (in the parlance of the day, you needed "big iron" to run UNIX). This legacy can still be seen when folks refer to the same hardware as a "workstation" when it runs UNIX and a "PC" when it runs Windows or MacOS.

Time marches on

The wave of personal computing radically changed the marketplace for information technology (appropriately accompanied by thunder, lightning, earthquakes and general chaos in the computer biz). The focus for computing environments now became "user friendly" because the potential volume of units that could be projected for profit margin calculations was very attractive if every home in America could be targeted. In order to create this large market, the computer's image in the public imagination needed to be changed from "expensive cabinets of blinking lights sequestered in glass rooms hovered over by technicians in white lab coats" to "your plastic pal who's fun to be with." The transformation from essential corporate machinery to desirable (becoming essential?) home appliance has taken place with impressive speed -- compare the "soul-less machine" Hal of 2001 with the quintessentially honest helpmate Hal became in 2010. Kids today don't have "computer phobia" because they associate computers with games and conversations with other kids in other parts of the world instead of a deluge of numbers interesting only to eggheads. In this, at least, they were better served by the media than we.

While Microsoft and Apple basked in the glory of unprecedented market success, many interested in the technology (as opposed to the the business) of computer software were often pushed by financial considerations and seemingly endless legal encroachments towards UNIX. When hardware costs were lowered by the volume that could be moved into the personal computer market, it was only natural that UNIX be ported to this platform. The process was aided and abetted by Berkeley, MIT's Free Software Foundation and others contributing UNIX source code to the public domain where its evolution was subject to both the whim and ingenuity of individuals world wide. Now, add the cross-pollination inevitable with increased subscription to the Internet, and ideas like Linux bloom.

It's free?

What, you may well ask, is so fundamentally important about Linux? It is the direct lineal descendent of a computing research project that has survived and prospered largely on its adaptability to technological evolution. UNIX has been critical to the birth and promulgation of ideas like c/c++, perl, email, the Internet, net news and yes, even the World Wide Web (you may be interested to learn that none of these ideas began as commercial products). But my case is not based on the fact that UNIX has always been favored by geeks instead of marketing hype. Today, Linux and the other "free" UNIX variants represent the most powerful computer operating environment you can own.

That word "own" is the kicker isn't it? By own I don't mean the right to use under legal contract with binding restrictions; I mean to possess with the right to copy, redistribute, sell or print the source code on a tee shirt if you think it's cool.

"Yeah yeah," you say, "but it doesn't really matter who owns your computing environment as long as you can use it to get the job done." Certainly not, as long as you don't mind paying some company to make all the decisions about your information access for you. Imagine for a moment that Carnegie had decided what the country needed was a large network of private, instead of public, libraries. Anyone could access the information stored in those libraries if they purchased a library card (remember it costs money to buy and house all those books). So what if the first few pages of Dante's "Inferno" were rented for advertisement space, and most margins in "The Origin of Species" littered with marketing babble? If it weren't for large corporations the books wouldn't be there, and anyway, you have to expect them to make a profit some how. Of course, some books which contain especially valuable information would be on the reserved list, but you could even get a peek at them for an additional "priority access fee." What did you expect? It is, after all, the Information Business now.

I won't belabor the analogy further because it isn't intended as biting satire but as a reminder that history is rife with examples of attempts to control people by controlling their access to information. Whether it is attempted by governments, religions or businesses, the antidote has always been the same: increased public access to information. Voltaire wrote many volumes of celebrated prose on this subject (available in English translation at your public library for free if you're interested) during what historians refer to as the "Age of Enlightenment." In our milieu, the end of twentieth century United States of America, we prefer our philosophy in a form that fits on a bumper sticker. "Know your Rights" seems like a reasonable start.

The next time you find yourself frustrated with the "improvements" or incompatible new "features" your chosen software vendor has provided in the name of increased productivity, remember that you have options. As a member of the public, you own a world-class computing environment. Even if you find spending the time to learn some version of UNIX unpalatable, recognize that the existence of a viable alternative is your most potent weapon in dealing with your chosen vendor. The free software movement has already made the most rabid of capitalist companies start employing terms like "open" to describe their proprietary products (if you are confused by their unusual definition of the word open, at least you can admire their panache). It might even be worth some of your idle time to learn a bit about this stuff because . . . well I think it's always a good idea to know your rights.