Did Linux succeed? Did BSD fail?

A window titled "Application Builder" showing components of a common desktop application such as menus, check boxes and so on. At the bottom is a strip containing icons.
A window from the CDE desktop, popular on Unix systems in the early 90s (although this is from a recent Linux system).

This morning, I had a Quora digest with a set of tech questions, including the usual number of plainly stupid ones that asked why something was true that wasn’t or why something happened that didn’t. Often these are about technology, and today’s stand-out stupid question was “Why did Linux succeed and BSD fail?”. The simple answer is that neither of them failed and both are still going strong, but the question stuck out because it’s a question that could have been asked in 2005 when it looked like Linux had really outpaced BSD as far as both the desktop and server markets were concerned. The question has some relevance to that time, but none whatsoever to now.

The most prominent answer said that it all traced back to a lawsuit in the early 90s when a team at University of California, Berkeley, was trying to release their version of Unix as open source and were promoting it as Unix (complete with a freephone number that read “ITS UNIX”), when in fact Unix was a trademark of its original developer, the phone company AT&T, who also found snippets of their code in BSD and sued. AT&T had developed it internally in the late 60s and licensed it to Berkeley in the 70s, who in turn licensed it to various mainframe and workstation manufacturers such as DEC (later Digital), Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. While the resulting operating systems were referred to as Unix, they were sold under other names such as SunOS and AIX because of the AT&T trademark. In the 80s, AT&T decided to capitalise on Unix and released commercial versions, notably System V Release 4, which became the standard for a few years and appeared on numerous computers which had previously never ran Unix at all, such as the Amiga. However, all these systems were expensive, with the cheapest commercial Unix for the PC with development software (for two users) costing $599 in 1994 ($1,117 or £833 in today’s money), and you would need the developer’s software because a lot of software was published as source code so it could run on any version of Unix. (Nowadays, developers can upload source packages to a server, such as Launchpad for Ubuntu and Open Build System for SUSE, which then compiles it and releases downloads for major Linux distributions.)

At the same time as the lawsuit was in progress, the Linux kernel was being developed, originally by Linus Torvalds in Finland but it quickly became a major project and a lot of BSD users and developers switched to the new project, which perhaps also offered the excitement of developing a whole new Unix OS from scratch (in fact, while the kernel was new, all the other material for an OS was there thanks to the GNU project). The lawsuit delayed the final release of the BSD operating system as open source for a year, by which time Linux had gained momentum and interest in BSD had been lost, and scared many corporate executives who insisted on switching to Linux despite its crudeness early on. The community developed software that replaced a lot of the proprietary components of the desktop Unix systems, such as the Common Desktop Environment and the Motif user interface library it was based on, and over the years these developed to a maturity that meant nobody really missed the originals. (The other day I saw a blog article that claimed that the CDE, now released as open source, was “still modern” in 2021. No, it isn’t. It looks like an 80s throwback.)

Fast forward to 2004, and the desktop is dominated by Microsoft’s Windows XP, a notorious security nightmare plagued by viruses and worms that exploited stupid design decisions in Windows, while Apple’s Mac was starting to bounce back from the doldrums: Mac OS X, as was, was just reaching maturity with Panther and was attractive to some Unix geeks including some who had taken an interest in Linux as well as those who had missed out on the NeXT system, the very cool-looking Unix-based machine aimed at the publishing market that Steve Jobs developed after leaving Apple in the 80s, which had been bought by Apple in the late 90s and whose operating system became the basis for Mac OS X. However, Linux was free, it was developed on an open-source basis which meant that bugs were found and patched quickly. Techies loved it, because it was good for web browsing and basic image editing and had office software that was just about good enough; the development software was free. Most people installed it alongside Windows and only used the latter when they really had to. There was always talk of Linux “taking over the desktop” and next year was always the year when it was going to. Meanwhile, FreeBSD, the major successor to the BSD system that was the subject of the lawsuit, was not a viable desktop operating system; it had a rather outdated installer and lacked the advanced file systems Linux used, which had a system called a journal which made recovering from a crash simple. You could put FreeBSD on your desktop, but it wasn’t easy or very satisfactory.

But that takeover never happened. XP was replaced with Vista, which was notoriously overblown and slow, but then came Windows 7 which redeemed Windows somewhat. It became less of a pain to use and had patched a lot of the security holes which had plagued XP. I used it quite happily for a few years alongside Linux. Meanwhile, the two main desktop environments for Linux had major revamps which were inspired by the new netbooks and tablets and which, for many (including me), ruined things. In 2011 I posted here that that Linux had stopped being fun that year: it was no longer easy to use or reliable and hardware support was starting to break. I moved back to Mac that Christmas and have never really looked back.

Now, Linux still has a very big share of the server market, is the major choice for supercomputing, and is the basis for Android as well as being used on a number of portable and embedded devices such as sat-navs and car and in-flight entertainment systems, while BSD forms the basis for all of Apple’s operating systems. Sales of desktop and laptop computers have declined over the years as tablets running iOS and Android have picked up; the old desktop Linux system didn’t take over the tablet market after all, which meant that the tablet-oriented redesigns of 2010 or so were for nothing. Back in the 80s magazines would talk of the prospect of a “Unix for the rest of us”; the systems were not only expensive but came on a very large set of floppy disks and were an ordeal to install; nowadays, anyone who uses a smartphone is using Unix of some kind but probably does not know it. Both these systems have millions of users worldwide either directly or indirectly, so neither can be said to have failed, or succeeded at the other’s expense. They just did not succeed in the way that might have been hoped for or envisaged either in the early 90s or in the mid-2000s. They certainly haven’t led to the open computing revolution some were hoping for, with everyone using a computer that they could hack as they saw fit, unencumbered by commercial end-user licences; in fact, computers have become more locked down in the past ten years and it is difficult or impossible to install or use a fully free OS on many computers sold now. But in terms of market share, both have been hugely successful.

Image source: By Huihermit, via Wikimedia. Released under the GNU Lesser General Public License v2.0.

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