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October 20, 1995

PLAN 9 AND AN ARTHROPOD VIE FOR TOMORROW’S OS DOLLARS

By CBR Staff Writer

If there’s one thing the world needs less than another new operating system, it’s several new operating systems. And that’s just what we’ll be getting soon, if you believe the promises of software developers. In fact, we’ve already got one. Windows95. We don’t feel like adding to the hype, so we’ll say nothing else about it. Well, except to say that we found much more interesting the announcement by a team of German biophysicists that they had successfully linked a silicon chip with a leech’s neurons. (Finally, an operating system that is supposed to suck). Driven by signals from the chip, the leech can be made to cringe and slither away at will. It would seem that Bill Gates, aka PC Barnum, already has access to the Germans’ work and has put it into practical field testing. Microsoft has all the major Unix vendors cringing now that they see what kind of marketing might Microsoft can muster. In the week preceeding the big Win95 pizza party and love fest, the leading Unix system vendors, systems software suppliers and applications software houses all banded together to endorse a standard for a 64-bit version of Unix.

Leech Release 1.0

The usual crowd of Unix dissemblers all signed the agreement, including IBM, Hewlett, Intel, DEC and Sun. The forthcoming 64-bit Unix spec, which has not been given its own acronym yet, will comply with established standards such as XPG 4.2 (what used to be called SPEC 1170), Posix, SVID, CDE and X Window. When (and if) all these vendors have hammered out their similarities and differences, the 64-bit spec will be submitted to X/Open, the independent organisation that controls Unix. Even a slug without a co-processor could figure out why the Unix vendors have to gang up and what they are ganging up on: Windows NT. Microsoft, which must support many Unix and ancillary standards, is moving into Unix turf in a big way with Windows NT. There’s not much else these Unix system vendors can do to stop NT than to adhere to a 64-bit spec that will (presumably) make Unix as attractive to software developers as NT will soon be. The obvious thing all these Unix vendors could do is stop selling systems that support NT. But they won’t do that. The other big operating system announcement this summer came out of AT&T Bell Laboratories. Twenty-five years ago, a group of propellerheads from Bell Labs created an obscure but powerful programming language called C and a portable operating system written with it called Unix. Now the same nerds, plus a few whippersnappers who were actually born in the Information Age as opposed to helping create it, have announced a new operating system called Plan 9. AT&T says Plan 9 was designed from the getgo to manage distributed systems and networks. The main idea is to make all resources available to all computers on a network so the distinction between client and server becomes irrelevant. Applications, or pieces of applications, run wherever they can on the network. In effect, Plan 9 is trying to do at the system level what software houses have been doing with C, SQL, ODBC and other pieces of software at the applications level. Whether or not Plan 9 actually gets academic acceptance – the first step Unix took into the commercial market – remains to be seen. But we think Plan 9 has as much of a chance of changing the mid-range market as the 64-bit Unix spec. Maybe more. But we still don’t think it’s as cool as Leech Release 1.0.

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