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Across the Pond

Love and UNIX: An Undying Affection

Why I carry the UNIX torch.

Thomas Scoville

Love, as a rule, doesn't figure prominently in discussions about computing. Perhaps this is for the best; computer virtuosi are not generally renowned for their grands amours, and it's probably better for all concerned not to call attention to this.

But at the risk of alienating all my other significant relationships, I'm compelled to proclaim that other love that dare not speak its name: I love my operating system. And even though linear-thinking, arch-rational computer adepts like myself are seldom compelled to such attachments, when love blooms on the desktop, the object of affection is very often UNIX.

I've seldom heard such bold proclamations of love for Windows NT. Certainly there are plenty of other strong emotions within its orbit: There is awe -- for the strategic positioning and sublimely ruthless marketing tactics supporting its proliferation. There is fear -- that it might subjugate the world in desktop tyranny. There is plenty of subjugated, groveling admiration of Bill Gates and his company's share price. But no love; Microsoft creations do not touch the heart.

I've been around the block. I'm not proud of it, but I must admit to having embraced a good number of OSs over the years. I've been a real libertine -- a slut, even. I've taken my walks on the wild side, from VMS to MVS. I've committed youthful indiscretions with CP/M and TOPS-20 that I've lived to regret. But none could ever measure up to UNIX. I will always carry a torch.

What was it about UNIX that won my heart? Like many great loves, it does not yield to rational analysis. But I do know that UNIX shares a lot in common with anyone else who ever won my undying affection. I'll try to explain:

UNIX is mysterious when you first approach. A little intimidating, too. But despite an unadorned and often plain presentation, the discerning suitor can tell there's lot going on under the surface.

She's complicated, too -- getting to know her takes some effort. She can be a little unforgiving on the command line. And of course, there are the inevitable arguments -- regular expressions, switches, and such -- so you have to choose your words carefully. Eventually you'll realize you're going to need to know a lot about her history before things ever get very far.

But if you show the right level of commitment, you can get close -- much closer than other OSs. When you become a superuser, both you and UNIX will be at your most vulnerable. You'll need a steady hand and an even temper to make it work out. And in many UNIX relationships, you'll even get source code and a compiler; you can ask her to change for you. A relationship doesn't get any closer or more committed than that.

I must confess that when I first met NT, I was dazzled by the flashiness. Lots of color, slick user interfaces, shiny icons inviting me to point-and-click. Relentlessly cheerful. There were no expectations I might have to burden myself with the distractions of typing or thinking much -- I just followed the defaults, flirting with the check-boxes and radio-buttons, clicking the inviting "OK" buttons. Wow. For a first date, things went just great.

But after a while I noticed a certain shallowness -- conversations never went beyond the pop-ups and dialog boxes. When I wanted to deepen the relationship, NT was stand-offish, aloof. Worse, I had the feeling that whatever might be going on under the surface, I would never be allowed to know. Such impediments to intimacy would definitely get in the way of a long-term relationship.

Time confirmed my worst fears: when it came to questions about NT's inner life, she wouldn't tell me anything. She wouldn't make herself vulnerable. And she'd never, ever show me the source code.

I know what you're thinking: this metaphor -- this author -- is deranged. Anyone with a need for this kind of intimacy with a virtual machine could use some serious psychiatric attention. And maybe you're right. UNIX isn't flesh and blood. Maybe I'm just a little too needy.

On the other hand, an operating system is a reflection of the values, personality, and ultimately, the psyche of the designer. And if I'm going to have to settle for a reflection, is it too much to ask it be a nice, warm, sympathetic psyche in the glass? One that will enjoy walks on the beach and dinners by candlelight as much as I do? Is it wrong to want more out of a relationship in which so much of my time is spent? Isn't it okay to want to feel just a little more fulfilled? I have so much to give... Must I throw my love away?


Andrew Hume

Lately I have been in a contemplative mood. There are several good reasons why. I have started mentoring (via email) a female undergraduate at a university in the Midwest. The project I have spent the last 3 1/2 years on is increasingly under its own management and direction. In April, my wife is expecting our first children (twins!). And, worst of all, I am getting really cranky about the software I use every day.

From 1983 to 1996 I worked in computer science research at Bell Labs, beside some of the best in our field (Ritchie, Thompson, Kernighan, McIlroy, Pike, ... ). Even better, I got to use their software! Eighth, ninth and tenth editions of Research Unix, and the various editions of Plan 9. Best of all, we had Dave Presotto riding herd on the two greatest fiascos of modern computer systems, mailers and networking. During this time I was quite productive in my work, largely due to the quality and smoothness of my computing environment, especially the effective pervasive user interface and window system done by Rob Pike.

Strangely, I was often pitied by outsiders as stagnating in my own insular backwater. I was missing out on the software revolution, the brave new world of the PC with its stunning, fabulous diversity of really keen products to help me do my work and increase my productivity. When I moved from Bell Labs to AT&T Labs, I undertook to experience the mass market full on! I tried to live on the frontier, using Windows 95 and X. Furthermore, my projects involved production systems, so I got to see and use real software (not that fake stuff we had in Research). After three years, I have learned some lessons and thought I'd pass them along. Of course, these are just one person's opinions; I would expect your mileage to vary.

  1. As far as I can tell, the only useful outcome of the PC business is high-performance commodity hardware. The software sucks. Even at its worst moments, Plan 9 was more reliable than Windows 95. Of course, it worked okay (meaning it only crashed every week or two) if you didn't do much networking or open many windows or install any new software. But this sounds like giving up to me.
  2. But what about the fabulous marketplace of software to do my bidding? Well, I tried that. I wanted some JPEG/MPEG viewers. So I followed the new order and went to www.tucows.com and downloaded every freeware/shareware viewer they had. Of the fifteen I tried, five destroyed my Windows software (complete reload required), and eight coredumped or caused the system to crash. But two actually worked! One of these had one of the worst user interfaces I've seen in some time; one was actually usable.
  3. So I am giving up on the whole Windows thing. I am switching to Linux or a BSD system; it should be much better, and I can't imagine it being worse.
  4. Perhaps more important, I think I am shifting to the open source camp. Perhaps I was unlucky, but in my current project we used five distinct software products on the production machine (other than what we developed). Three were commercial offerings (the system software, a backup suite, and a file transfer suite), and two were supported by folks in AT&T Labs - Research (sorting and searching programs). After fifteen months, the story was:

I seem to have come full circle back to where I started in 1975 - running UNIX and software developed by a worldwide collaborative community. And for pretty much the original reasons: it's a very effective way to use the hardware, and the software (and software environment) is simply better. (Of course, I'm still hoping for another release of Plan 9!) Although some part of me is depressed at the apparent lack of progress in 24 years, the rest of me is excited at getting back to an environment where I am much more effective.

Originally published in ;login: The USENIX Association Magazine, vol. 24, no. 1 (February 1999). Reproduced by permission.

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