How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Unix

Notes written in conjunction with a presentation for the BYU Unix Users Group. I assume general familiarity with Unix/Linux.

History of Unix

A nice brief history of Unix, from its creation to the present, is at Nick Moffitt's History of Unix.

Hating 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 A lot of their complaints are whiny, and even more of them are outdated, but anyone can occasionally relate to their frustrations.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.

Quotes from the UNIX-HATERS Handbook

Learning to Love Unix

Benefits Over Alternatives

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.



Command Line