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A Strange and Twisted Road for Unix November 30, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms.
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I sat for a long time trying to figure out how to begin this post.  Its impetus was an announcement that Attachmate would be retaining the copyrights to Unix as a part of its acquisition of the remnants of Novell, which was found to legally possess those copyrights after a long and contentious court battle (which is not entirely concluded).  To further add to the confusion, The Open Group, best known for its promotion of the TOGAF system and software architecture framework, owns the Unix trademark.

Unix was developed at AT&T Bell Labs developed in the late 1960s by a group of researchers, including Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and Brian Kernighan.  It was unique at the time in that it supported a client/server architecture with the ability to support multiple interactive users.  It was radically advanced for its day, and even today most mainstream operating systems owe at least their conceptual origins to Unix.

Initially, AT&T (eventually Unix Systems Laboratories) made Unix available to universities and commercial firms, as well as the United States government under licenses. The licenses included all source code.  The University of California took its code and turned it into the Berkeley Software Distribution, or BSD.

The early history is far too broad and detailed for me to go through, but if you’re interested, check it out on Wikipedia

When AT&T was broken up under court order, the company sought to commercialize Unix, which led to the so-called Unix wars.  In the mid-1990s, AT&T sought to divest Unix Systems Laboratories at the same time Novell was looking for its next-generation network operating system.  Novell acquired Unix System V, but was unable to execute its plans to create a viable Windows NT competitor.

At the same time, Linux, a community-developed Unix look-alike licensed under the open source GNU General Public License (GPL), led the push toward mainstream legitimacy for open source software in general.  Its free and open source nature, its strong resemblance to Unix, and the willingness of the community at large to fix bugs and enhance the software, make it attractive for many users, even those who need guaranteed support and responsiveness.

Novell ended up selling Unix to the Santa Cruz Operation, or SCO, a Unix licensee and purveyor of Xenix (an early adaptation of Unix for the PC) to mid-market businesses.  SCO transferred the Unix trademark to The Open Group, and the company eventually sold its Unix business to Caldera Systems, an early Linux distribution provider.  Caldera changed its name to The SCO Group, and began a legal assault on Linux, claiming that copyrighted Unix source code is now a part of Linux (IBM Linux, at least).  The SCO Group has largely lost that case, and bankrupted itself in the process, but the bankrupt company is still pursuing what claims remain.

Both Sun Microsystems (now Oracle, of course) and IBM bought out of the AT&T copyright years ago, in a move that today seems prescient (Oracle has since discontinued Sun’s OpenSolaris open source distribution).  However, because of IBM’s significant support for Linux, it became a defendant in The SCO Group’s copyright infringement lawsuit (that suit remains ongoing).  You can read an amazing amount of detail on the various SCO-related lawsuits at Groklaw.

In short, the game seems to be coming to close for pure Unix System V.  The many derivatives of Linux have certainly eclipsed Unix in all but name, and even Novell has long since gone to Linux (SuSE) as its next-generation network solution.  It’s a sad denouement to an operating system that on its technical merits deserved better.  Perhaps all it is good for today is lawsuits.

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Comments»

1. Immolator - December 1, 2010

It is just sad how the software business look like nowadays. It is not an engineering discipline anymore. Everything seem to be run by wheel of big business. Pretty creepy.


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