Unix Is Struggling in Attempt To Be Standard for Computers

By Janet Guyon Credit: Staff Reporter
The Wall Street Journal

Dec 13, 1985

About this time last year, double-page ads in major business publications were trumpeting the virtues of American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s Unix operating system for computers. The multimillion-dollar campaign, which included ads in five languages overseas, proclaimed AT&T's latest version of Unix -- System V -- to be "the standard" for computers of all sizes.

The proclamation was premature. A year later AT&T still hasn't made a dent in the office personal computer market with its operating system -- the permanent software used by a computer to control its own functions. Experts say Unix has little chance of unseating the widely used MS-DOS system developed by Microsoft Corp., which runs International Business Machines Corp. and IBM-compatible office personal computers. And AT&T probably won't even try to find a home for Unix in the low-end home computer market.

There are several reasons why Unix hasn't won broad acceptance. IBM's MS-DOS has five times the number of applications programs written for it. That disparity in the amount of software that enables a computer to perform a specific task, such as word processing, isn't likely to change much. With some 4.9 million IBM or IBM-compatible machines in use, compared with about 170,000 Unix machines, few software houses are eager to write programs for the Unix market.

There are technical reasons, too. Most operating systems are written in a very basic language specific to a particular size and type of machine. This means that applications that work on a minicomputer, for instance, won't work on a mainframe or a personal computer.

Unix, however, is written in the more sophisticated "C" language, which makes it relatively easy to transplant the operating system from machine to machine. In theory, that means applications programs need to be only slightly rewritten to run on different sizes and brands of computers, a boon to companies that want to retain their applications software as they change computers. To move applications software between Unix machines would take months at most, says AT&T, compared with years for computers that don't share the same operating system. Unix also has many commands implanted in it, making it easier to write more complicated applications programs.

But Unix was developed 16 years ago at Bell Laboratories, before AT&T was in the commercial computer business. To spread its use, AT&T licensed the system to more than 18,000 computer makers, software developers and universities. These licensees, as well as Bell Labs programmers, updated and changed Unix so that now there are a dozen or more variants.

While these offshoots of Unix share as much as 90% of the original's instructions, the differences usually mean that they can't run the same applications programs, frustrating AT&T's attempt to establish a standard operating system.

The path to standardization is further complicated in personal computers, which read applications off floppy disks. AT&T only now is attempting to establish a standard format for floppy disks so that Unix can read the disk regardless of the design of the computer's central processing unit. Now, two different computers using the same version of Unix can't necessarily read the same applications program.

"Applications -- even if they are on consistent versions of Unix -- may not run because they are looking in the wrong file on the floppy disk," says William O'Shea, executive director of the software division of AT&T's Computer Systems division.

Some question whether Unix is even appropriate for personal computers. Steven Ballmer, a Microsoft vice president, argues that the operating software itself uses as much as four times more memory than his company's MS-DOS for personal computers. Additionally, Unix instructions are generally more arcane. To get a directory listing all files under MS-DOS, for instance, one types the command DIR, but on Unix, the command is ls -l.

Says Jean Yates, a vice president of International Data Corp. who has tracked Unix since 1982: "It's very clear that the single user will use an MS-DOS computer." More likely, she says, Unix will spread in use on minicomputers and so-called super microcomputers. Those bigger machines can make full use of Unix's ability to allow simultaneous use of the computer by more than one person and to run more than one program at a time.

AT&T is making some gains in promoting standardization, however. It has gotten agreement from major proponents of other Unix versions to adapt to System V. Microsoft has revised its Xenix system, which was developed to run on IBM computers, to conform with System V; Sun Microsystems Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., software company, has agreed to adapt its version, too. Most heartening, IBM is selling versions of Unix that run on its personal computers and mainframes.

Getting Unix widely accepted is "very, very important" to AT&T's ability to sell its own computers, says the company's Mr. O'Shea. "It's conceivable that if Unix isn't adopted as a standard, that AT&T can still succeed," he says, "but the road will be much easier to navigate if we do succeed, because otherwise we'll have to attract all those applications some other way."

Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc