The Origins and Future of Open Source Software

UNIX as a Public Standard

If anything illustrates both the gains from government support of open standards in computing and the dangers from public policy withdrawing from that support, it is the UNIX operating system.

UNIX was the first operating system developed that was independent of specific hardware, thereby giving users and programmers freedom from the dictates of hardware designers. UNIX could be "ported" to different machines, thereby allowing the same program to run on completely different hardware. Created at Bell Labs in the late 60s when AT&T was still barred from the computer business, UNIX was widely licensed by AT&T, mostly to universities. UNIX was especially popular with ARPANET programmers working on a wide variety of computers because they needed to create an integrated set of software tools for managing their emerging network.

UNIX had developed during the 1970s into a number of lackluster variations, so in the late 1970s, UC-Berkeley researchers--funded largely by ARPA--developed an improved version that was dubbed UNIX 4.1 BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution). Bill Joy, the lead programmer in the Berkeley UNIX effort, was again funded by ARPA in 1981 to create a new version of UNIX including TCP/IP networking protocols. With a minimal licensing fee, Berkeley seeded its UNIX version with its Internet protocols throughout the university world.

Probably no single private company benefitted more from (and contributed more to) the open UNIX and Internet standards than Sun Microsystems, a seller in the early 1980s of new high performance machines dubbed workstations. Sun would enter, then dominate, the market for stand-alone workstations that were beginning to replace time-share minicomputers. Started in 1982, Sun would be one of the fastest growing companies in history, making the Fortune 500 within five years. By 1995, the company would sell 1.5 million high performance computers, used as the core systems for networking in government, universities, finance and engineering. And from the first day of operation, every Sun computer was shipped with UNIX with hardware and software designed to be hooked up to the Internet. It was on Sun UNIX machines that much of the Internet would be networked in the 1980s, and it was on Sun Workstations that the first Web browser, Mosaic, would be designed.

That Sun was committed to open standards reflected the company founders' emergence out of the milieu of Bay Area graduate students immersed in the ARPANET. When Stanford M.B.A.'s Scott McNealy and Vinod Khlosa teamed up with Stanford student Andy Bechtolsheim, who had developed a new high performance computer using off-the-shelf components, it was natural for them to adopt UNIX, the popular university operating system, as the operating system for their new computer. And it was natural for them to bring in as a co-founder Bill Joy, the premiere UNIX and ARPAnet programmer at UC-Berkeley.

Commercial versions of UNIX, however, were splintered between various incompatible proprietary versions. Far from being a widely used standard in business that Sun could just hop a ride on, Bill Joy and the Sun team had to help build a standard and sell private industry on the gospel of open computing. They took a number of steps to ensure that the BSD UNIX on Sun's computers was seen as a real standard. Sun gave away the BSD UNIX and TCP/IP networking software with every computer they sold. When Sun develop a Network File System (NFS) in 1984 that enhanced network computing by making it possible to share files between different computers, they didn't try to sell this advance as normal software. Instead, they licensed it to the industry for a nominal licensing fee and even published the specifications for the software on the usenet electronic bulletin board so anyone could construct an alternative to the NFS file system if they wanted to avoid the license fee. Usable on DOS, VMS and other operating systems, it was a key advance for networking and increased trust by customers that Sun would be an honest guardian of the open standards it was promoting on its hardware. Another key step was made in 1985 when Sun approached AT&T, allowed back in the computer industry, and worked out an agreement to merge Sun's Berkeley UNIX with AT&T's System V, further enhancing the public view of Sun's UNIX as the standard.

The key for making UNIX nearly universal in corporate and high-end computing in the late 1980s, though, was decisive action by the federal government in support of strong UNIX standards. The federal government itself was faced with a mess of different computer systems that needed to be networked together. Because of the close ties of the Department of Defense to university researchers (largely fostered by ARPA/DARPA), the federal government already had an affinity for UNIX. So in 1986, the government passed regulations that no company could bid on any government computer contract unless their system offered UNIX as an option. This gave Sun a huge advantage in securing a large slice of the $500 million, five-year National Security Agency contract then under bid. Sun's and AT&T's version of UNIX was now the benchmark for selling to the government and university markets (along with many private industry customers who would follow the government's lead in standards). This was reinforced in 1988 when the Air Force declared DEC's proprietary version of UNIX, called Ultrix, ineligible for government contracts.

Other workstation and corporate computer makers would do a complete turnaround in 1987 and 1988 and begin promoting their own "open computing" UNIX systems--all with the built-in Internet protocols that would set the stage for the commercial explosion of the Internet in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, this was also the period of government withdrawal from strong support for computing standards and the result was the development of different UNIX standards, as Sun, Hewlett Packard and other companies lined up behind different variants in commercial warfare. This fragmentation of UNIX standards was soon mirrored in the war between Netscape and Microsoft over Internet standards that followed the government's withdrawal from defense of those standards.

Next: Breakdown of Open Computing on the Internet