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Software options

AT&T weighs in

The Economist

February 20, 1982

MURRAY HILL, NEW JERSEY -- America's telecommunications behemoth, AT&T, looks set for its first important computing triumph. The battleground is the fast-emerging small-business market for 16-bit computers. The opposition consists of several much smaller companies. The objective is to set the de facto standard for the so-called operating system software needed to marshall the running of stacks of computer programmes and to carry out other unglamorous house-keeping chores on the 16-bit machines. AT&T's answer is a system called Unix, which has now been adapted for this market and more competitively priced.

Tremble AT&T's main rival, the small if thrusting Californian company, Digital Research. Digital's operating system (the CP/M) is used on over half of the smaller, 8-bit personal computers now installed and the company had hoped its various 16-bit systems would do as well. That now looks most unlikely.

Unix has had two boosts--both thanks to AT&T's manufacturing wing, Western Electric. Late last year, Western Electric introduced a version of Unix pitched specifically at the commercial user and simultaneously slashed the cost of licences to use the system by as much as tenfold (to just $250 in one case).

A backlog of licence applications has already built up, and five or six makers of 16-bit computers in America--including Fortune Systems and Altos--are now offering Unix on their machines. Even before these moves, Unix had managed to garner a select coterie of 3,000 users among universities, software development outfits and the like.

Unix's big attraction lies in its technical attributes. Foremost amongst them is its basic construction. Bell Laboratories' aim in developing Unix was to provide a clean, simple operating system in stark contrast to the large, convoluted systems that went before. IBM's System/360 operating system, created in the mid-1960s, took over 5,000 man-years to develop. Unix was initially developed by two people working in an attic at Bell Labs.

The designers wanted to produce a software framework which could be easily extended to embody new features. Unix was to provide the ''grammar'' for an operating system into which others could slot ''words'' to suit a particular context.

The result was a three-tier system. At Unix's heart is the operating system itself, which supervises the scheduling of computer tasks and manages information storage. Then comes the so-called shell, which calls up the individual programmes to be run. Thirdly there are the programmes instructing the computer to do certain routine chores such as word processing, memory management and so on.

Within this tier structure lie some other features which make Unix easy to use both for operating existing programmes and for creating new ones. These include:

* Formatless filing. Files are fundamental to computing: they contain the data which number crunchers crunch. In most cases the unfortunate programmer has to specify both the location and size of the file he wants his machine to use. Not with Unix. The result is faster and easier programming.

* Piping. This allows the output from one programme to be used as the input for another--or even the replacement of one or more complete programmes by another. So it is possible to build up new programmes from old, saving time and money.

* Portability. This vogue-word means being able to move software from one computer to another. Unlike many made-to-measure operating systems, Unix is easy to transfer--a particular advantage since Unix runs on both 16-bit and 32-bit minicomputers. When a company has outgrown its smaller machine, it can move its operating system (and all its subsidiary programmes) to its newer, bigger one.

Unix does have one potential Achilles heel. Not much application software has been written for it. Here Digital Research has the upper hand. Though amateurish compared to Unix in construction, its CP/M system has many hundreds of programmes under its belt. Still, given the consummate ease of writing programmes to run on Unix, this disadvantage should not prove a major one. Perhaps the final comment should rest with the Japanese. They have already selected Unix to be their standard operating system for 16-bit computers.

Copyright 1982 The Economist Newspaper Ltd.