First FOSS OS?
Posted Mar 21, 2007 17:27 UTC (Wed) by landley
In reply to: First FOSS OS?
Parent article: The road to freedom in the embedded world
> The general public hardly heard about Free Software or the freedoms.
Back in the 1970's there _was_ no proprietary software market to speak
of. Why? Because the unit volumes on the machines were too low to
support any companies. (Micro-soft was one of the first, and they were a
shoestring operation with three employees, one of which was part time and
one of which had a day job at HP. The _very_ first might have been
Digital Research, which was a one-man operation Gary Kildall ran out of
his living room to make and sell CP/M for the very first commodity
hardware platform, the S/100 Altair clones.)
In order to sell shrink-wrapped binary software, you need lots of the
same machine out in the wild to be potential customers. The PDP-8 was
the bestselling machine each year from its introduction until it lost the
title to the Apple II. In its ENTIRE PRODUCTION RUN the PDP-8 sold a
grand total of about 50,000 machines. That wasn't per-year, that was
In its first two years, the Apple II sold a combined total of 43,000
units (The Innovator's Dillema, page 135). When IBM introduced the PC as
an "Apple kiler" it planned to manufacture 250,000 units. That was going
to be the complete production run. It got that many _preorders_.
(Although the commodore 64 had significant unit volume during this period
as well, since they were going for the low margin high volume niche sold
retail through outlets like Sears.)
The first "killer app" was Visicalc for the Apple II, written in 1979.
This was the first shrinkwrapped binary software to sell on floppy disk
in any significant volume (say more than 50,000 copies).
The proprietary software industry emerged around 1980 because there were
now enough of the same machine out there to make selling shrink-wrapped
binary software a commercially viable option. Before that, the
proprietary software industry DIDN'T EXIST. You either had software
commissioned (hideously expensive), it came bundled with the hardware
(most OSes), or it was users exchanging programs they wrote. This was
NORMAL. The unusual thing about Unix wasn't that users traded changes to
it but that the OS was written in a high level language rather than
assembly. This meant it wasn't tied to a single piece of hardware the
way Stallman's precious ITS was (which died with the PDP-10, forcing him
to start over from scratch, and this time he picked something portable
and with an existing user community that was ALREADY used to patching the
source code of their OS, ala the Lions book). AT&T didn't try to
commercialize Unix until 1983, by which time it was about as old as Linux
In this context, the founding of the Free Software Foundation in 1983 was
the creation of a conservative reactionary movement to preserve a
vanishing status quo, aimed at resisting changes in the industry and
advocating a return to the glorious past. It's no accident that the 1984
book "Hackers" by Steven Levy writes about Stallman as "the last of the
I repeat that the GPLv2 was great. It took several iterations to get it
right (the revised emacs license, gplv1, and then gplv2). But the GNU
project failed. Deal with it. Linux is the result of others acting
independently. (Linus was inspired by Andrew Tanenbaum's Minix which had
NOTHING to do with the GNU project.) Draping a GNU flag over Linux is
SILLY, if gcc hadn't been available Linus would have used the minix
compiler until he could write his own. (He DID write the front end of a
compiler a few years ago, for fun: it's called "sparse".) The Linux guys
maintained their own C library (up through libc5) before switching to
Ulrich Drepper's glibc fork (which was an independent fork and see
Ulrich's comments linked above for the backstory on that).
Linux is NOT a reincarnation of the GNU project. When the GNU project
died Linux salvaged some parts from the scrap, that's all.
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