Reflections on the Dennis Ritchie Era

Dennis Ritchie
Dennis Ritchie

It’s very difficult to find a computer related technology that keeps its usability and popularity for more than a decade; most of the products that were using “killer technologies” of the 90’s are now either considered obsolete or completely replaced with newer items. Many programming languages came and went away, and operating systems which supposed to “revolutionize” the industry now are long faded into history: Amiga OS, BeOS, OS/2 and NetWare, once promising platforms, some even with great market share, are now either discontinued or are now rebranded into niche or “hobby” projects.

In this competitive field, it’s a surprise to find a man that had a fundamental role in creation of an operating system (UNIX) and a programming language © which both are arguably, the most popular pieces of code in their respective categories of all time, and not only the modern incarnations of both are still based on the original concepts which it’s creators designed, but also, they are growing quickly in newest sectors of the industry, outpacing the technologies that came about 20 years after them.

Perhaps managers of Microsoft corporation in their heydays of mid 90’s and after they defeated IBM OS/2, NetWare, Mac OS and expensive UNIX players and became the sovereigns of PC industry, never anticipated that they will lose ground to UNIX like operating systems in servers, mobile and PDA platforms and later completely miss the tablet market no matter how much they invested on R&D on this platform.

I remember once I read an article in Byte magazine around 1988 (Byte unfortunately ceased publication on the same year), about late Steve Jobs’ introduction of the wonderful NeXT computer. I remember Mr.Jobs told something similar to the following to the reporters:

“I believe this with every bone of my body: UNIX will be the prime operating system of every major company in the 1990s.”

Well, apparently, A genius like Mr.Jobs, made a mistake by overestimating the other players’ insight; except his own product (NEXTSTEP, which later incarnated to Mac OS X and iOS) and Mr.Trovalds’ creation (Linux) almost no other major player realized the importance of UNIX and incorporated it in it’s product line until the introduction of Android in 2005. (Even desktop Linux, never gained popularity, mostly because of lack of a coherent, fundamental application suite.) Of course, I’m not taking the companies which simply rushed to rebranding Linux to “embrace openness” and mostly later failed into this equation.

Now, after 42 years, UNIX is stronger than ever; iOS and Mac OS X are the favorites among creative class as well as the new mobile generation, Solaris, HP-UX and AIX are catering to HPC and enterprise market, QNX is shining on embedded market and recently incorporated to RIM’s blackberry ecosystem, and finally, Linux is reaching it’s popularity beyond it’s traditional bastions of networking, servers and hackers into embedded market, mobile OS’s like Android and Bada.

On the other hand, C and it’s object oriented incarnations are the basis of most of information technology ecosystem; from servers to desktops, from web applications to tiny scripting languages and bytecode running on virtual machines, the impact of C is beyond perception.

All this empire of software architecture is indebted to the efforts of Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, whom the latter unfortunately passed away on October 12, 2011.

There has been always criticism one complexity and difficulty of both C and UNIX. However one must consider that C and UNIX both provide a strong and simple architecture which other technologies can be built on them, and that must be one of the main factors of their success, among with their unlimited capacity for portability.

In an “Anti Foreword” to “The UNIX haters handbook”, a semi-humorous book criticizing and ridiculing UNIX which in some point made comparison between UNIX and prison cells, he wrote:

“Yet your prison without coherent design continues to imprison you. How can this be, if it has no strong places? The rational prisoner exploits the weak places, creates order from chaos: instead, collectives like the FSF vindicate their jailers by building cells almost compatible with the existing ones, albeit with more features.
The journalist with three undergraduate degrees from MIT, the researcher at Microsoft, and the senior scientist at Apple might volunteer a few words about the regulations of the prisons to which they have been transferred.”

I’m just a person too much fascinated by computers. In today’s standards, I’m hardly even considered computer literate, however, I never forget the first time I was stunned by the stability, simplicity and power of UNIX, and the first time I read the book “The C Programming Language” aka “the Bible”. Thank you Mr.Ritchie, you will be greatly missed.

Kasra Yousefi

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