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O’Reilly’s X-Factor

By Daniel Drew Turner, October 4, 2002

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SANTA CLARA, CALIF. – Speaking in a keynote session of this week’s O’Reilly Mac OS X conference, Jordan Hubbard, one of the seminal figures in the development of BSD Unix, spoke to developers and Unix faithful about his part in “the Unix wars” and his take on the state of Mac OS X.

Hubbard, who recently was hired as the Manager of BSD Technologies for Apple’s Core OS Engineering division, was a cofounder of the FreeBSD project in 1992. In between these two positions he managed the FreeBSD CD-ROM project line for Wind River Systems. By bringing Hubbard into its fold, Apple instantly raised its standing in both the open-source and commercial Unix worlds, though many in those communities have maintained a wait-and-see attitude as to whether Hubbard will influence Apple or vice versa.

Facing an audience sporting almost exclusively iBooks and PowerBooks (with a large number running Mac OS 9), Hubbard moved from the birth of Unix in the 1970s to the beginnings of Unix World War I, when software systems such as OSF1, SysV, BSD and others sprouted into the nascent market space. Of course Hubbard admitted he thought BSD was the superior product, though it didn’t dominate at first.

“Why didn’t BSD take over the world?” Hubbard began. Largely responsible, he said, was a lawsuit over the use of the Unix name brought by AT&T against the managers of BSD. This, plus a countersuit by the University of California at Berkeley against AT&T, not only tied up further development of BSD but also served to fragment early attempts at API standardization across various Unix flavors.

Hubbard said this in turn lead to both incompatible software and hardware offerings from competitive vendors, as each tried to distinguish its product. One notable divergence, he said, was in windowing systems of the 1980s and 1990s. This lead to what Hubbard called Unix World War II: the GUI Wars.

Hubbard said that even though API standardization was lacking, various Unices were still more in common at a low level than in terms of usability; as Sun, AT&T, HP, OSF and others all cooked their own user interfaces. Faced with the option of having to overhaul their applications radically for non-standard and mutable systems with small market shares, developers bailed out and looked to Windows.

“Since Unix was perceived not to be user-friendly, this conclusion was self-perpetuating,” Hubbard said. “The end result was that Unix lost the desktop.”

What kept Unix alive until its “second renaissance,” according to Hubbard, was that “the essential tool-building philosophy is a good one,” plus the compelling nature of open systems and the general talent of the remaining Unix community.

The second ride of Unix in the 1990s, Hubbard said, was due in large part to the Internet, which “changed all the rules.” In addition to almost all TCP/IP research and development being done on Unix, the sudden need for reliable and powerful servers cast Unix in a new light, as more than a system for the long-faithful sci/tech market. Also, the Internet energized the open-source community, offering them a far faster and flexible method for communal development and troubleshooting. Similarly, the relative stardom of Linux and its creator Linus Torvalds reflected onto the world of Unix.

In that timeframe, BSD was freed from its lawsuit stall. After Novell purchased the Unix rights from AT&T, it decided the lawsuit it also acquired was not worth the cost and bad publicity. “Free from the suit, BSD was able to add the missing bits it needed and it then started setting Internet records” for system downloads, said Hubbard.

Though Hubbard said he would not speak about any new projects or products, he did outline what he felt were the strengths of Mac OS X – “world-class APIs,” “generally usable” Java, Quartz – he also stressed that “OS X is not just another Unix.”

The distinctions include, he said, the Mach underpinnings of OS X; IOKit, the object-oriented, plug-and-play driver model; power management (“I don’t close my BSD portable – it might wake up”); and the priority Apple places on ease of use.

In addition to winning independent software vendors over to a Unix-based OS, Hubbard said that “I think Mac OS X will win the war we lost.” He touted Apple’s installed base of over 25 million users, the strong relationship Apple has with ISVs, strong hardware design and the fact that “it’s not Windows.”

Though the line elicited a chuckle from the audience, when Hubbard took a show of hands, there was a great overlap between those who had always used Macs and Unix. However, only a few hands raised when he asked who had switched from Windows.

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