Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie

This hasn't been a great week to be a computer pioneer. Dennis Ritchie has now followed Steve Jobs off the stage and into that great big computer industry in the sky. Two giants in a single week.

Steve Jobs


Dennis Ritchie

I guess, unlike most people, I have been touched by Ritchie much more than by Jobs. I have never owned a Mac or an iPhone, and regretted buying an iPod as soon as I realised there was no way to bypass the iTunes straitjacket. iPod generation 4 worked with the gtkPod application on my Ubuntu desktop, but generation 5 corrected that shocking oversight, and the Apple empire, with a sigh of relief, regained its pristine purity, shutting out the great unwashed once more. That ended my dalliance with Jobs and his closed system. I don't fancy handcuffs even when they're haute mode.

I feel sorry about the death of Steve Jobs the human being. I have no sympathy for the worldview that he represented, of closed systems, slimy lawyers and patent lawsuits.

Dennis Ritchie, of course, was the polar opposite of Jobs. Those who have read Asimov's science fiction trilogy Foundation may remember that there were two Foundations, a well-known one at the periphery of the Galactic empire, and the other, a secret one, located "at the opposite end of the galaxy". Many characters in the novel tried searching for the Second Foundation along the opposite edge of the galaxy where they thought it would be, but its actual location was right at the centre of the empire! The term "opposite" was meant in a sociological sense, not a physical one.

And in true Foundation-esque fashion, Ritchie's contribution to mankind, while in a sense the opposite of Jobs's, was not a rival closed system but an open one. Along with Ken Thompson, he wrote the most open operating system of its time, -- Unix.

Ken Thompson

The popular web article "The Last Dinosaur and The Tarpits of Doom" has a matchless passage describing the world at the time of Unix's birth.

In 1970, primitive proprietary operating systems bestrode the landscape like mighty dinosaurs: Prime's PrimeOS, DEC's RSTS, RT-11, etc. (with VAX/VMS soon to come), IBM's innumerable offerings, CDC's Scope and of course dominating the scientific workstation market, Apollo's Domain.

Who would then have dared to predict the fall of such giants?

What force could topple such entrenched operating systems, backed by massive industry investment, hacker culture and customer loyalty?

Today, of course, we all know the answer:

In 1975 Bell Labs released Unix.

  • Unix had no support from its creator, AT&T: Buy the magtape and don't call us. (AT&T was legally barred from entering the operating system market.)
  • Unix had no support from any existing vendor: None had the slightest interest in backing, supporting or developing an alternative to its proprietary operating systems offerings.
  • Unix had zero customer base: Nobody had ever heard of it, nobody was requesting it.
  • Unix had zero marketing: Nobody had any reason to spend money building mindshare for it.

A one-sided competition?

Decidedly: Unix wiped all workstation competition off the map in less than fifteen years.

On April 12, 1989, HP bought up Apollo at a fire-sale price, putting out of its misery the last remaining proprietary operating system vendor in the workstation world, and the workstation proprietary OS era was over: Unix was left alone in the workstation market.

In fifteen years, a [magnetic] tape and an idea had effectively destroyed all opposition: Every workstation vendor was either supporting Unix or out of business.

Let me add one more point to that. At the heart of Apple's operating systems is a version of Unix (BSD Unix). Steve Jobs's business empire took a freely available operating system, layered a user-friendly graphical interface over it, and without a word of thanks, proceeded to build a proprietary empire that was as closed as its enabling technology was open.

So thank you, Dennis Ritchie, for giving us today's Mac.

Ritchie was an inventor second to none. People today forget one of the main reasons Unix is considered "open". Before Unix, an operating system was written for a specific processor chip, in the assembly language corresponding to that chip. One of the key factors that made Unix open was the fact that it could be ported to any chip at all. More than 90% of an operating system's logic is in fact independent of the underlying hardware architecture. Less than 10% is specific to the chip. That's why only very low-level code in Unix is written in assembly language. That's the only part that needs to be re-written when porting Unix to a different processor architecture.

Once the operating system was liberated from its ties to hardware, any hardware manufacturer could port Unix to their computers. That's the openness that destroyed the proprietary dinosaurs and created the world we see today. We have Thompson's and Ritchie's genius to thank for that. In the next generation, Linux proceeded to wipe out proprietary Unix variants to take over the server room.

Today, Google's Android has Linux at its core. So now Ritchie's invention has taken over the server, a significant part of the desktop (through the Mac) and an increasingly dominant part of the smartphone and tablet markets (through Android and Apple's iOS). Not bad for a simple and open operating system!

Now we know that 90% of Unix is written in a higher-level language, and therein hangs another tale. At the time Thompson and Ritchie wrote Unix, there was no suitable high-level language to write an operating system in. It had to have the higher-level constructs of most modern, structured, procedural programming languages. Yet it also had to provide sufficient control over low-level constructs like memory addresses and file structures. This was a challenge that may have stumped other people and caused them to compromise in some way. Not Ritchie. Necessity for him was the mother of invention - the invention of the C programming language. Together with Brian Kernighan, Dennis Ritchie created the first C compiler, and it is astonishing that the language has hardly had to change since their version to the present day. The standardised version of their language, ANSI C, is largely the same as their original one, with just minor changes. Now that's vision for you.


Brian Kernighan

C inspired C++, Java, JavaScript, Perl, C# and a whole bunch of other languages. Any language with curly braces and semicolons owes an intellectual debt to Ritchie and Kernighan.

The laptop that I'm composing this on runs Ubuntu Linux, another variant of Unix. Most of Linux is written in C. I'm probably not fully aware of the extent to which I owe Ritchie a debt of gratitude, as the one common factor in the creation of both Unix and C.

By the way, if you think Unix has an ugly user interface because of its command line, there are two rebuttals to that argument. The trivial one is that modern Unix variants like Linux have very sophisticated and friendly user interfaces indeed. The deeper rebuttal is that there is beauty and power in the Unix command line that MacOS has eagerly embraced as an offering to the "power user".

User Interface experts Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen write in their classic paper The Anti-Mac Interface:
The see-and-point principle states that users interact with the computer by pointing at the objects they can see on the screen. It's as if we have thrown away a million years of evolution, lost our facility with expressive language, and been reduced to pointing at objects in the immediate environment. Mouse buttons and modifier keys give us a vocabulary equivalent to a few different grunts. We have lost all the power of language, and can no longer talk about objects that are not immediately visible (all files more than one week old), objects that don't exist yet (future messages from my boss), or unknown objects (any guides to restaurants in Boston).
Like they said. As an advocate of the power of the Unix command line, I rest my case.

Unix is such a unique phenomenon in the world of computing that noted academic Prof Martin Vermeer believes it should be treated as a basic element of literacy, alongside the three Rs.

And so a tumultuous week has gone by, and the computer industry mourns its two luminaries. Among computer pioneers, Steve Jobs was the shiny user interface, slick and popular. Ritchie was the kernel, unseen and unknown to the masses, yet the workhorse that made everything else possible, including the user interface. He may be less widely mourned, but no less mourned.

And I like to think Ritchie rushed after Jobs to make sure the Pearly Gates stayed open to all!

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