Notes written in conjunction with a presentation for the BYU Unix Users Group. I assume general familiarity with Unix/Linux.
A nice brief history of Unix, from its creation to the present, is at Nick Moffitt's History of Unix.
The UNIX-HATERS Handbook (1994) is a great read. Since it's out of print, you can freely download the PDF online. The book was written by a number authors who despise Unix for whatever reason. A lot of their complaints are whiny, and even more of them are outdated, but anyone can occasionally relate to their frustrations. The main thing that bothers me is that they don't give any alternatives. They mention various extinct OSes like Multics, ITS, and the Lisp Machine. Occasionally, they even mention DOS/Windows, about which I could write a much longer hate book, and MacOS, which ironically ended up "going Unix" due to scalability problems. Additionally, since almost all current operating systems have borrowed so much from Unix, many of the book's chapters could be copied verbatim to other OS Haters Handbooks.
The Unix Haters casually mentioned, but severely undervalued, several tremendous strengths of Unix, which have become even more pronounced in Linux. Unix, for all of its weaknesses, has the capability to evolve. The fact that so many of the complaints are fully resolved is a testament to the true strength of Unix. The "great designs" of the extinct OSes fatally omitted the ability to change. Even more fundamentally, they were proprietary, so no one else could even try to go in and change them.
I have to admit to a deep love-hate relationship with Unix. Much though I try to escape it, it keeps following me. And I truly do miss the ability (actually, the necessity) to write long, exotic command strings, with mysterious, inconsistent flag settings, pipes, filters, and redirections. The continuing popularity of Unix remains a great puzzle, even though we all know that it is not the best technology that necessarily wins the battle. I'm tempted to say that the authors of this book share a similar love-hate relationship, but when I tried to say so (in a draft of this foreword), I got shot down:
"Sure, we love your foreword," they told me, but "The only truly irksome part is the `c'mon, you really love it.' No. Really. We really do hate it. And don't give me that `you deny it--y'see, that proves it' stuff."
I remain suspicious: would anyone have spent this much time and effort writing about how much they hated Unix if they didn't secretly love it? I'll leave that to the readers to judge, but in the end, it really doesn't matter: If this book doesn't kill Unix, nothing will.
As for me? I switched to the Mac. No more grep, no more piping, no more SED scripts. Just a simple, elegant life: "Your application has unexpectedly quit due to error number -1. OK?"
--Donald A. Norman, Apple Fellow Apple Computer, Inc. And while I'm at it: Professor of Cognitive Science, Emeritus University of California, San Diego
I liken starting one's computing career with Unix, say as an undergraduate, to being born in East Africa. It is intolerably hot, your body is covered with lice and flies, you are malnourished and you suffer from numerous curable diseases. But, as far as young East Africans can tell, this is simply the natural condition and they live within it. By the time they find out differently, it is too late. They already think that the writing of shell scripts is a natural act."
--Ken Pier, Xerox PARC
Who We Are: We are academics, hackers, and professionals. None of us were born in the computing analog of Ken Pier's East Africa. We have all experienced much more advanced, usable, and elegant systems than Unix ever was, or ever can be. Some of these systems have increasingly forgotten names, such as TOPS-20, ITS (the Incompatible Timesharing System), Multics, Apollo Domain, the Lisp Machine, Cedar/Mesa, and the Dorado. Some of us even use Macs and Windows boxes. Many of us are highly proficient programmers who have served our time trying to practice our craft upon Unix systems. It's tempting to write us off as envious malcontents, romantic keepers of memories of systems put to pasture by the commercial success of Unix, but it would be an error to do so: our judgments are keen, our sense of the possible pure, and our outrage authentic. We seek progress, not the reestablishment of ancient relics.
I have succumbed to the temptation you offered in your preface: I do write you off as envious malcontents and romantic keepers of memories. The systems you remember so fondly (TOPS-20, ITS, Multics, Lisp Machine, Cedar/Mesa, the Dorado) are not just out to pasture, they are fertilizing it from below.
Your judgments are not keen, they are intoxicated by metaphor. In the Preface you suffer first from heat, lice, and malnourishment, then become prisoners in a Gulag. In Chapter 1 you are in turn infected by a virus, racked by drug addiction, and addled by puffiness of the genome.
. . .
Your sense of the possible is in no sense pure: sometimes you want the same thing you have, but wish you had done it yourselves; other times you want something different, but can't seem to get people to use it; sometimes one wonders why you just don't shut up and tell people to buy a PC with Windows or a Mac. No Gulag or lice, just a future whose intellectual tone and interaction style is set by Sonic the Hedgehog. You claim to seek progress, but you succeed mainly in whining.
Here is my metaphor: your book is a pudding stuffed with apposite observations, many well-conceived. Like excrement, it contains enough undigested nuggets of nutrition to sustain life for some. But it is not a tasty pie: it reeks too much of contempt and of envy.
The authors of the UNIX-HATERS Handbook mentioned several contemporary alternatives to Unix, namely: TOPS-20, ITS (the Incompatible Timesharing System), Multics, Apollo Domain, the Lisp Machine, Cedar/Mesa, and the Dorado. The claim is that these systems were superior to Unix. Why is Unix so popular while these other systems are long forgotten? The main reason is the open nature of it. Unix was originally distributed freely among enthusiasts within Bell Labs and at universities. People had access to the source code, and could make changes and extensions as they pleased. Eventually, AT&T decided to make Unix into a commercial product and cracked down on the sharing, but Unix, the inherently free system that it is, instinctively liberated itself through projects such as BSD, GNU, and Linux. Though the word "Unix" for a period in the 1980s and 1990s invoked all meanings but freedom, its eternal nature was never extinguished. This openness has kept Unix alive. All weaknesses of Unix are completely negligible compared to the proprietary and single-platform natures of the forgotten systems. According to history, proprietary operating systems, outside of the personal computer market (i.e. DOS/Windows), just don't survive.
Because of its free nature, Unix is evolutionary. A majority of the complaints in the UNIX-HATERS Handbook have been resolved in the years since its publication, and there is no end to future improvements.