Over the years a long line of knights in shining armour have come galloping up on white chargers to rescue Unix. Dragging her kicking and screaming from her Ivory Tower, each had a different plan to make her a dazzling superstar in the real world outside (and, incidentally, make themselves very rich in the process). Some wanted to make her so easy to use a mentally retarded six-year-old would find her dumb and boring; some wanted to tart her up to make her slick and commercial and attractive to jaded businessmen; some tried to give her a bit of spit and polish to make her conform to the military’s paranoid security demands; and some made her bells and whistles sing and dance in real time. She was hitched to every bandwaggon and wooed by the designers of every exotic architecture. For 15 years she has been used and abused by everyone from the industry’s superstars to mumbling, bumbling, backstage geniuses; but she has been able to change to satisfy their every demand whim or fancy. And this has led to all the trouble today.
Much maligned ICL
By trying to be all things to all people, Unix has gone from being the single, simple, universal system running on a range of different machines that Bell Laboratories conceived, to a whole range of different systems, often only loosely based on the original concept. Into this distressing situation stepped the much maligned ICL – the ailing flagship of the British computer industry before it was taken over by the upstart STC two years ago, and at first sight a most unlikely knight in shining armour. But by cajoling and coercing Europe’s leading computer companies to form the standards body that became X/Open, it has quietly started a revolution in the industry which will eventually bring untold benefits to the poor, confused, bemused and bamboozled user. To appreciate what X/Open is doing, one needs to realise just how crazy, chaotic, senseless and wasteful the traditional industry is. Even after the nasty experiences they have had with personal computers, most people still believe that real computers are designed by sane, rational engineers for the benefit of the user who, after all, pays for the machines and has to try and use them. Nothing of course could be further from the truth. Each manufacturer has designed its machines and software as if the competition did not exist. Or, rather, each has deliberately made its machines incompatible with those of its rivals, so that programs written for one machine will not work on any other, making it very expensive for a customer to move to a rival, and causing untold senseless inconvenience, chaos and waste. But the arrival of the microcomputer with MS-DOS as an effective standard opened the eyes of customers to the benefits of a standard operating system and portable software, not just on desk-top computers but in the minicomputer and mainframe worlds. Rumblings of discontent were heard and more and more users and new companies turned to Unix with its promises of vendor independence and applications portability. But as each implementor succumbed to the temptation to hack at the kernel to improve the system, the promises were turning out to be empty. AT&T tried to throw its weight around and impose a standard from Above – the System V Interface Definition, SVID. But unless you have dictatorial powers, standards have to be agreed from Below not imposed from Above, and AT&T just did not have enough clout with the industry. So back in 1984 ICL persuaded the four other leading European computer companies – Nixdorf, Siemens, Bull and Olivetti – to form X/Open as a body to agree standards to make programs portable: the Common Applications Environment. In 1985 Philips and Ericsson, the only other major European companies, joined and X/Open published standards for the Unix operating system and the C, Fortran and Cobol languages. Last year the US companies DEC, Hewlett-Packard and Unisys joined, as did Unix-developer AT&T this year. Anyone can now write software to the published standard and know it will run on any X/Open system from any sup
plier – an earthshaking advance for the traditional computer industry. And as the Common Applications Environment contains the hardware specifications, it is an open system which allows users to mix and match systems from different suppliers and still move applications between machines. The X/Open Common Applications Environment, CAE, is based on AT&T’s SVID (AT&T has bowed to the inevitable and gracefully handed on its standardisation efforts to X/Open) and both the SVID and CAE will be compatible with the US IEEE Posix portable operating system standard.
Nice to ICL
Microsoft’s Xenix and Sun Microsystems’ version of Unix are also set to conform to the joint standard later this year. This leaves only the Berkeley BSD version and its many derivatives (notably DEC’s Ultrix) out in the cold, and teams of experts are said to be labouring far into the night to bring BSD into the fold as soon as possible. (In deference to Berkeley, we will pretend that networking has not been invented yet.) Meanwhile, X/Open has gone on to adopt Hewlett-Packard’s 8-bit Natural Language System to allow it to cope with the accents and so forth used in different European languages, and eventually be extended to a 16-bit rerpresentation of Chinese and Japanese ideograms and syllabaries. X/Open has also adopted X/Open SQL to interface to relational databases and is working on transaction processing, networking, communications, graphics and a uniform user interface. But the revolution has not just been in technical areas: all these deadly rivals who are normally at each others throats are being nice to each other – and especially nice to ICL. Derided in the throwaways of the computer press over here as the dinosaur of the UK computer industry, it is hailed in public as the driving force behind these improvements. And companies that have never said anything printable about ICL thank it publicly for working to make X/Open possible. Nothing has been seen like it since Bob Geldorf metamorphosed from sub-human to saint…