The Lessons of Unix History

The largest-scale pattern in the history of Unix is this: when and where Unix has adhered most closely to open-source practices, it has prospered. Attempts to proprietarize it have invariably resulted in stagnation and decline.

In retrospect, this should probably have become obvious much sooner than it did. We lost ten years after 1984 learning our lesson, and it would probably serve us very ill to ever again forget it.

Being smarter than anyone else about important but narrow issues of software design didn't prevent us from being almost completely blind about the consequences of interactions between technology and economics that were happening right under our noses. Even the most perceptive and forward-looking thinkers in the Unix community were at best half-sighted. The lesson for the future is that over-committing to any one technology or business model would be a mistake — and maintaining the adaptive flexibility of our software and the design tradition that goes with it is correspondingly imperative.

Another lesson is this: Never bet against the cheap plastic solution. Or, equivalently, the low-end/high-volume hardware technology almost always ends up climbing the power curve and winning. The economist Clayton Christensen calls this disruptive technology and showed in The Innovator's Dilemma [Christensen] how this happened with disk drives, steam shovels, and motorcycles. We saw it happen as minicomputers displaced mainframes, workstations and servers replaced minis, and commodity Intel machines replaced workstations and servers. The open-source movement is winning by commoditizing software. To prosper, Unix needs to maintain the knack of co-opting the cheap plastic solution rather than trying to fight it.

Finally, the old-school Unix community failed in its efforts to be “professional” by welcoming in all the command machinery of conventional corporate organization, finance, and marketing. We had to be rescued from our folly by a rebel alliance of obsessive geeks and creative misfits—who then proceeded to show us that professionalism and dedication really meant what we had been doing before we succumbed to the mundane persuasions of “sound business practices”.

The application of these lessons with respect to software technologies other than Unix is left as an easy exercise for the reader.