Unix at 40: together we rock

Unix at 40: together we rock

Walk into a shiny Apple Computers showroom anywhere in the world, buy the very latest in the company’s cult range of computers and you might be a little alarmed to know that you are still going to buy at least some software code that is 40 years old.

For it was in August 1969 that two researchers at AT&T Bell Labs first unveiled a revolutionary new operating system. Unix, developed initially by Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, would end up becoming one of those rare computing discoveries to do the unthinkable: Stay relevant and buck obsolescence for four decades.

And the secret behind this longevity is simple: no one single entity ever owned Unix. Other operating systems conceived down the years, including Windows, had developers guarding them closely. Buyers who bought the operating systems were seldom, if ever, allowed to even peer into the lines of code that made their computers work. Doing that simply didn’t make balance sheet sense for the makers.

Unix, on the other hand, constantly evolved under constant tinkering by developers in companies, universities and non-profits. And in most cases these lines of code were left open for the benefit of the entire computing community. Which further tinkered.

Over the years, Unix served not just as an open, flexible operating system, but also a birthing ground for other innovations. These include the C programming language, the communication protocols that help computers talk to each other on the Internet, and the foundations of the open source and free software movements. Commercial companies spun off their own versions of the operating system that they could then sell for a price. Which is why even the latest version of Apple’s OS X operating system, based on Unix, still has middle-aged Unix code lurking inside somewhere.

In this, the 40th year of its inception, Unix is a reminder of the immense power of open source technology and collaboration. And not just in the field of computing and technology. When good ideas such as Unix are left wide open to grow and evolve, it benefits everybody. What about giving governance, green technology and finance the open source treatment?

What holds greater promise for the future: open source or proprietary technologies? Tell us at views@livemint.com