Over at Computer World, they’ve got a piece celebrating this summer’s 40th anniversary of the invention of the UNIX operating system with a look back at its past.
While originally designed to be a multiuser operating system, and later becoming the default for big iron, UNIX was initially created on a quite gutless, even by the standards of the day, PDP-7 computer. Small and efficient were the watchwords in creating an OS for hardware that had less memory than even the first popular home computers later would. And, in those days obviously, there would be no GUI interface to the operating system. It would be all command line.
The system UNIX’s creators came up with featured very small programs (or commands) which did very little, but did it very well. More complex operations were achievable through the powerful mechanisms of piping and redirection of command output. Typically output was printed to the screen after entering a command, but with piping it could be sent as the input to another command. With redirection, output could be sent to a file instead of to the screen. (With the tee command, you could have both.) Consequently, long chains of piped and redirected commands could be used to accomplish complex tasks, and oft-repeated incantations of this sort were saved as scripts which could themselves then be invoked as commands.
We may be inclined to use the past tense while looking back nostalgically at this simple but powerfully literate operating system, but system administrators and power geeks around the globe still use its command based approach every day; it’s simply more efficient for many tasks than the more complicated graphical environment.
Computer World‘s article includes some speculation about the demise of UNIX in favour of other operating systems, including Linux, but to even consider this you have to set Linux aside as “not UNIX.” That’s technically doable for several reasons, the most conspicuous being that UNIX is a trademark and no one in Linux land has paid, or even applied, to use it (to my knowledge). But that’s a little like saying we shouldn’t call Japanese cars automobiles since the car is something they just copied. Also Linux technically refers to just the heart of the operating system, the kernel, with the basic stuff that goes around that (like the command line) being the product of the Free Software Foundation’s GNU project.
Richard M. Stallman (affectionately known to many as simply “rms”) wanted to create a free UNIX operating system, so he set to work creating the basic set of programs and commands, except for the kernel, and then — just to confuse everyone — called it “GNU’s Not Unix” (GNU being a recursive acronym), possibly to make a point, but what that point was I have no idea). The most fundamental subset of the operating system most know today as Linux should really be called GNU if we’re going to go by who produced the most bits and pieces. Really, Linus Torvalds contributed just one part. It’s like our solar system, if you think about it: Is it the Sol system, or the Terran System? The kernel is the centre around which everything orbits.
Last year was GNU’s 25th birthday, and in the following birthday video, actor Stephen Fry explains why GNU is not UNIX. See if it makes sense to you.