Personal Computers

UNIX Breaks Into the Light

By T. R. Reid, Staff Writer
Washington Post

January 23, 1984

A colleague here, a person experienced and wise in the ways of microcomputers, asked me what I planned to write about this week. So I told her.

"Eunuchs?" she replied with considerable befuddlement. "Doesn't that belong in the Style section? You're writing a computer column about eunuchs?"

Right there we have a clear demonstration of the personal computer world's abysmally low level of familiarity with UNIX.

UNIX is an important and widely used computer operating system so powerful and multifaceted that it makes our familiar CP/M and MS-DOS look like playthings. A great deal of the software familiar to personal and home computer users -- including VisiCalc, WordStar and the programs for Apple's Lisa and MacIntosh -- was written under UNIX. But many computer buffs are unaware of UNIX and the useful, bargain-priced computer systems that use it.

UNIX, like a lot of other important computer paraphernalia, was born at Bell Labs. In an effort to mollify government trust-busters, the Bell System started giving UNIX away free to universities. As a result, a generation of computer science students grew up with UNIX in the same way a whole generation of lawyers grew up with Prosser on Torts.

Why is this relevant to a personal computer user? After all, you're reasonably happy with your Apple or IBM-PC or TRS-80. And you've finally gotten to the point where that weird CP/M language -- stuff like "PIP{v}" -- actually means something. Why would you want to worry about a whole new operating system?

Because personal computers running CP/M or MS-DOS are being used in a lot of places that cry out for UNIX instead.

UNIX, among other virtues, is a multi-user system that permits 5, 50, or 500 people, each with his own "work station" (i.e., keyboard and screen), to tap into a single system and a central memory bank without need for modems and special communications software. And UNIX can work on any microprocessor, so that the user can add a new computer without spending megabucks to translate all his software.

If you work in an office with three or more people using microcomputers, you owe it to yourself to look into a UNIX system.

Right here in our nation's capital, for example, I know of an office that recently bought all of its 30 staffers individual IBM-PCs, each one accoutered with its own printer and software package. To put it gently, this decision was absolutely insane.

For about half the $120,000 that office shelled out for its 30 separate computers it could have obtained a multi-user UNIX system that would be faster and more powerful -- and would permit all 30 users to communicate with each other.

On a UNIX system, all users would store their files in a single central memory. In that 30-computer office, "storage" consists of hundreds, maybe thousands, of floppy disks stacked up in drawers, desks and file cabinets. You can be sure -- Murphy's Law says so -- that on the day of the big presentation it will turn out that George left the data disk at home in his old briefcase.

The good news here is that UNIX is now breaking out of its accustomed obscurity. Clearly, the boom is on. This was strikingly evident last week when USR/Group, the great UNIX evangelists, held the annual trade show, "Uniforum." This year's show, sprawling over two whole floors of the Washington Hilton, had three times as many exhibitors as the '83 event. And it sparked with the particular electricity that comes to computer people when they brush up against the three magic letters: IBM.

On the eve of Uniforum, IBM announced that it will soon start offering the UNIX operating system for the IBM-PC. (It will be called "PC/IX", short for "Personal Computer -- Interactive Executive) If you want to know how valuable UNIX can be, just look at IBM's suggested price. You can buy MS-DOS for your IBM-PC today for about $50; UNIX will be priced at $900. As has been standard in the personal computer business, IBM is something of a late-comer to the UNIX world. Radio Shack jumped in last year with its multi-user "System 16," and there are lots of other companies selling microcomputer UNIX systems, including Altos, Onyx, Fortune, DEC, and Sun.

The big software houses are climbing aboard, too. Microsoft, the home of MS-DOS, MBASIC, and other standards, has its own implementation of UNIX called "XENIX." (How much do you suppose they pay the geniuses who think up these revolting names?) Digital Research, the maker of CP/M, is entering the market. The big winner from IBM's recent announcement was a previously obscure outfit in Santa Monica called Interactive Systems.

Interactive Systems developed IBM's PC/IX, and will receive a license fee on every system sold. But it is also free to market the same program separately to anybody who wants to offer an "IBM-compatible" UNIX system. And some day AT&T, parent of Bell Labs, will offer its own computer system. Don't you think it's safe to assume they will be pushing their own home-grown operating system?

Eunuchs, indeed! The word, as we'll all soon know, is UNIX.

Copyright 1984