Unix at 50: How the OS that powers iOS and Android started from failure

Richard Jensen for Ars Technica:

Maybe its pervasiveness has long obscured its origins. But Unix, the operating system that in one derivative or another powers nearly all smartphones sold worldwide, was born 50 years ago from the failure of an ambitious project that involved titans like Bell Labs, GE, and MIT. Largely the brainchild of a few programmers at Bell Labs, the unlikely story of Unix begins with a meeting on the top floor of an otherwise unremarkable annex at the sprawling Bell Labs complex in Murray Hill, New Jersey…

By the late 1970s, a copy of the operating system found its way out to the University of California at Berkeley, and in the early 1980s, programmers there adapted it to run on PCs. Their version of Unix, the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), was picked up by developers at NeXT, the company Steve Jobs founded after leaving Apple in 1985. When Apple purchased NeXT in 1996, BSD became the starting point for OS X and iOS.

The free distribution of Unix stopped in 1984, when the government broke up AT&T and an earlier settlement agreement that prohibited the company from profiting off many Bell Labs inventions expired. The Unix community had become accustomed to free software, however, so upon learning that AT&T would soon be charging for all copies of Unix and would prohibit alterations to the source code, Richard Stallman and others set about re-creating Unix using software that would be distributed to anyone free of charge—with no restrictions on modification. They called their project “GNU,” short for “GNU’s Not Unix.” In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a university student in Helsinki, Finland, used several of the GNU tools to write an operating system kernel that would run on PCs. And his software, eventually called Linux, became the basis of the Android operating system in 2004.

MacDailyNews Take: Unix via BSD, NeXTSTEP, OpenStep, etc. begot Apple’s macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, tvOS, and audioOS.

There are tons more in the full article at Ars Technica, so tech history buffs should get on over there and read it!


    1. Danox is no Steve Jon’s pancreas either, but no-one complains about that, do they. In fact, people are quite happy he isn’t. Linux is derived specifically from Unix, so your point is what, exactly? That you’re a Pulitzer Prize-worthy comment writer, just like me?

      1. Linux is similar to a Unix system, close but not, Linux is not a Unix which predates Linux by many year’s, Linux biggest benefit is to Google, why? it’s free, the article at Ars Technica tries to give false equivalence to the Android OS when compared to OSX/iOS. Similar to trying to give Google equal status with the unprofitable Pixel phones, when compared to the Apple’s iPhone.

  1. We ran into the cost issue in the mid eighties. Must have been just about when they started charging for UNIX. As I recall there was a substantial charge for the C libraries as well as for UNIX. We were looking to replace DEC RT-11SJ which was free for us. We looked into using UNIX and C but it would have cost us a license fee for each user. That was a deal killer.

    People complain about the cost of computers these days. We shipped a DEC LSI-11/23 computer with 64kB of memory in a scientific instrument. We offered a 1MB memory board as an option for $10k and it was very popular.

  2. The ironic thing is that these days Apple is delivering their major OS platform upgrades for Free? It is a grand demonstration that Apple uses software to sell hardware – and they provide free upgrades for a number of years.

    1. The software was better when users paid for it. Freebieware will never off the same quality and it definitely doesn’t provide Apple the critical feedback to tell them if the software they are making is worth a dime to users. Increasingly it Apple is detached from user requests and it shows.

      1. True, but the coming updates are going to be very good, and the Geeks are going to be crying loud and that is when you know it’s good…Similar to the Tesla geeks crying about the Porsche Taycan next month.

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