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Mommy, Where Did Unix Come From?

Sometime in the mid 1960s, a bunch of geeks at AT&T's Bell Labs decided it would be fun to create a new operating system called Multics. (This was no small task, because computers at the time were about the size of a football field and two stories high.) Multics fizzled in 1969 when Bell cut the cord, but some of the geeks continued work on what became known as UNIX; and it became wildly popular inside AT&T. Since AT&T was not allowed to sell computer software at the time, it gave away UNIX (complete with source code) to any educational institution. AT&T produced new versions of UNIX called System III and System V in the early 1980s, but all the while, geeks at the University of California at Berkeley and other places were busy hacking away on their own versions of Unix based on the AT&T code. Some cross-pollination did occur, but there are still significant differences between the Berkeley (commonly called BSD Unix) and AT&T flavors. In the early 1990s, AT&T sold UNIX to Novell, which was bought by Digital Equipment Corporation, which sold it to SCO (Santa Cruz Operation) in 1995. For the next 15 years, SCO then tried (with little success) to sue just about everyone, claiming that Linux or some variant of UNIX, or a product based on them, violated their copyright and/or licensing terms. SCO now teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, after a court ruled in 2010 that Novell is the owner of the UNIX copyrights.

So how does this affect Linux? Much of the legal wrangling was over whether or not snippets of the original UNIX code found their way into Linux, and if so, was it a legal violation of any sort. Novell seems to have put this to rest by stating "We don't believe there is Unix in Linux" and pledging not to sue anyone over UNIX or Linux ownership issues.

Today, there are now lots of Unix variants sold or given away by many different companies and universities. While these various flavors can make it difficult to write portable software, efforts to standardize Unix (two of the more notable ones being POSIX and COSE) offer hope for greater compatibility in the future.

Like any operating system, Unix has some cryptic commands and less-than-intuitive aspects. (Three of the most important Unix commands have the peculiar names cat, grep, and awk .) Either serious hallucinogens or a warped sense of humor came into play at some point in the creation of Unix. I don't let this bother me, though, taking comfort in my favorite platitude: "Unix was written by geeks on drugs." Seriously, though, Unix is really no more difficult to learn than DOS or Windows--it's just different.

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Comments - most recent first
(Please feel free to answer questions posted by others!)

B-dub     (17 May 2014, 22:50)
Just wanted to suggest you consider proving dates - whether in the form of a page last updated date or in text "as of" so that we can have a better idea of recent timeframes when you use words like "Today, there are ..." or "SCO now teeters ..."

Thanks for your very helpful content!
praveen     (31 Mar 2012, 22:15)
I've a bunch of questions from your article:
1.what is XWindows?
3.can't understand the line no Unix in Linux?
John     (17 Mar 2012, 07:09)
If Multics fizzled in 1969, can you please tell me why I was forced to endure using it in the middle eighties while I was studying my Computer Science degree course!!! :)
chris     (26 Feb 2011, 05:00)
hey thanks alot for putting this up. and thanks for the whole not assuming we are already well versed in the subject before trying to tell us somthing about it. i love computers and i like to learn its just kina hard to learn when you cant find a good place to sttart so thanks for that haha :D
Alfred G Mangera     (31 Aug 2010, 03:41)
i have learned a lot today
Bob Rankin     (09 Aug 2010, 11:37)
@Roy, I did some updating. Hopefully the legal nonsense is over, but SCO is not quite dead yet. :-)
Roy     (06 Aug 2010, 14:57)
Hi Doctor Bob;

I think you need to do a complete re-write of the first two chapters of this tutorial. You talk about DOS but I don't think anyone, except me, uses it any more. And SCO, I thought they died a few years ago after trying to sue everyone and their mothers. They hung around for about 3 or 5 years after they were declared brain dead.

I welcome your comments. However... I am puzzled by many people who say "Please send me the Linux tutorial." This website *is* your Linux Tutorial! Read everything here, learn all you can, ask questions if you like. But don't ask me to send what you already have. :-)

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