Unix gets 50 -- a personal perspective
I recently wrote a post about the 50th anniversary of the Unix operating
system , where I included a list of resources about Unix and its
This (long) post is not about Unix, rather about my relation to Unix. It
is possibly the least technical and most personal post I have written
for this phlog so far, and it will most probably remain the only one of
The first time I heard about UNIX was around 1990/91, through an
encyclopedia of computer science that my father had bought in the mid
'80s. It consisted of 6 volumes, and one of them was dedicated to stuff
running on professional computers. And UNIX was obviously there. I don't
remember much about that material, except for the fact that the powerful
UNIX they were talking about required users to provide a login name and
a password before using the computer. Why would anybody need a password
to use a computer? (Well, I was 10 or 11 at that time, and I was so
lucky to own a CPC464...).
Fast-forward a few years, around 1996 I bumped again into UNIX through a
book I took from my school's library. The book explained the basics of
the UNIX system, contained several examples of how the commands worked,
and had a chapter or two about the shell, I/O operations, pipes,
processes, simple scripts, and so on. I borrowed that book several
times, although I did not have any way of trying those commands out (I
was still on a CPC464). I guess I was attracted by the fact that you
could combine multiple commands to do more complicated stuff, but I am
pretty sure I was not able to verbalise it at that time. I ended up
memorising most of the commands and tools, though.
The first time I sat at a linux terminal was when I enrolled at
university, in 1998. Actually, that was the very first thing I did on
the same day of my enrollment, when I received the student ID number
which allowed me to access the computer laboratory. I finally had a Unix
system in front of me (a 386 with an early Slackware and twm) and I
could answer the "login:" prompt. The lectures would have started in
October, but I went to university anyway three or four times a week in
August and September, just to go to the computer laboratory and use Unix
(I was still stuck with the CPC464 at home). I spent most of that time
programming in C, trying out disparate command combinations, learning
vi, and browsing the early web using lynx (but also mosaic or netscape,
the few times I could seat at the only Pentium in the lab, which had
enough RAM for them). That was the time when I discovered gopher, and
archie to search ftp sites (that was the heyday of sunsites :P).
I finally got a PC in Spring 1999, and managed to install Linux on it
soon after. That was the time of distro-hopping. Around that time I also
got the habit of reading a random manpage every now and then. I just
typed a letter at the prompt and then a double-TAB (bash completion was
not that smart to include manpages at that time :P), and then looked at
the manpage of one of the command I did not know about. There were
hundreds of them, and there was always something new to learn. It was
literally impossible to get bored at the Unix shell.
Over the years I have played quite a lot with many flavours of Unix.
Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD on my own desktops and laptops, as
well as Solaris and OpenSolaris on Ultra-SPARC machines. At Freaknet
medialab I had the chance to play with dozens of other Unix releases,
from AIX to XENIX to IRIX. And for other reasons I also got my hands
dirty with HP-UX, Tru64, and many others. I also got a special interest
for minimal distributions, those which pack an unbelievable lot of stuff
in as little space as possible.
The most exciting thing about Unix is that wherever I login I feel home.
Whatever the flavour of Unix I am using, regardless of how old it is, or
which kernel it runs, or how much its license costed, it is after all
the very same system, the same system I fell in love with by reading a
book many years ago.
I think the main reason why I fell in love with Unix is its simplicity.
Once you have grasped a few simple principles, everything else just
makes sense. And also the sense of "power" it gives to a user: Unix is
the only system that won't actively stop your attempts to destroy it, if
you are determined to do that. Unix does not treat its users as dumb
customers, and does not believe to be smarter than you are, or to know
what you want better than you. After all computers are made to be
Unix is a system conceived by hackers for hackers' use. It's a system
where you can do anything you like, if you have the determination to
learn how to do that. It's a system that comes with all the needed
documentation for you to learn how to do things. It's a system that you
can customise to make it fit you better than a second skin. It's a
system you can modify and extend for your own purposes without limits.
It's a system that forces you to think before you do anything, to reuse
stuff that already exists, to avoid over-engineering, to keep things
simple and neat. It's a system that has spurred the formation of a
welcoming world-wide community of like-minded people, who enjoy
computing as an endless empowering, satisfying, creative activity.
In the end, I believe that Unix is a unique philosophical take on
computing and human-computer interaction. If it happens to work for you,
then you cannot conceive computing without it any more.
Unix has been an extremely enjoyable intellectual journey. Unix keeps my
brain active. Unix makes me happy. I genuinely don't understand why
doctors do not prescribe it...