Sunday, December 26, 2004

UNIX History in Detail

I just finished reading the primary two parts of an advocacy piece called Elements of Operating System and Internet History: A FreeBSD Rationale. It appears to be self-published by the author, Bruce Montague. Dru Lavigne made me aware of this work in her blog. The first 64 pages are divided between a 22 page "FreeBSD Executive Summary" and 42 pages on "Unix History, Open Source, and FreeBSD." The third section, which I plan to browse later, consists of 74 pages of various bits of UNIX and Internet trivia.

I found the sections describing UNIX history to be very informative and detailed. The author makes the point that the BSD license supports technological transfer of software from the university to the commercial space, while the GPL was explicitly designed to inhibit technology transfer (pp 14, 18). I was surprised to learn that early hardware vendors encouraged users to write their own software, and in many cases sold user-developed software. Even more shocking was the revelation that the US government, now infected by Microsoft, mandated UNIX for all federal OS purchases in 1986!

The first 64 pages form a coherent whole, but I stopped reading when they ended. The next pages are a collection of trivia. For example, the author claims that the UNIX 'dd' command is so named because its parameters (like 'if=/dev/zero') take the form of IBM JCL 'DD' commands (p 70). These and other tidbits are best read during free moments, perhaps waiting for something to compile on a slow machine.

I think this work could be expanded to a full book if the author explained FreeBSD history beyond the launch of 386BSD. At lot has happened since the 1991 Dr Dobb's Journal articles cited by Montague. I would welcome seeing him describe the launch of FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD, as well as more recent innovations like Mac OS X, Darwin, and DragonFly. I would also like to see him analyze the publication of the The 1994 USL-Regents of UCal Settlement Agreement published by Groklaw.

Bruce Montague's work is available through Trifusil Publishing.

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