Apple saved by Unix?

Jim Whitehead (
Wed, 22 Jan 1997 15:26:37 -0800

A well-reasoned defense of Unix as a stable workhorse OS, far from dead.

- Jim

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Sunday, Jan. 12, 1997 Page B 5 c1997 San Francisco Examiner
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Next up for Apple: Saved by Unix?

Venerable OS is still the best around


I had several interesting conversations around the office last week
about the future of Apple. Several people asked me about my opinion,
since I'm the systems guy. I'm as puzzled as everyone else, but I told
them a story about a system they all use but never see.

Over in our network room, there's a computer of modest size sitting on
a metal rack, surrounded by the network hubs and routers. Its monitor
is turned off, and for months at a time, no one even touches it.

It has not been rebooted for 142 days (and has gone for 10 months at a
time without being rebooted in the past), and all that time it has been
working very hard, attending to the following tasks and more:

Accepting all our e-mail off the Internet and filing it away on its
disks until users read it and reply;

*Acting as Web server for the paper's Web site (,
dealing with up to 30,000 requests for files a day;

*Acting as an invisible host to all of our Netscape users, for

*Sending a periodic "hello" message to our Internet service provider;

*Watching four phone lines for incoming data;

*Keeping a log of all these activities and notifying me via e-mail if
anything unusual happens.

It does all of these things simultaneously, and if everyone was using
our e-mail system at the same time, it wouldn't care, and they wouldn't

What kind of computer is this?

It's a Sun, and it's running on the Unix operating system.

Could a Macintosh do this? The idea is laughable.

Could Windows 95 do this? Also laughable.

Could Windows NT do this? Not yet, but it's the best hope Microsoft

The point is, the operating system makes a huge difference. To explain
why, without getting boring, is very difficult, but here's an example:

Those of us who use Macintoshes accept crashes as a daily fact of
life. When a Macintosh crashes, it affects only one person, so it's
acceptable though obnoxious.

If that computer over in the network room crashed every day, it would
affect almost everyone at The Examiner. We wouldn't get as much stuff
done, and I wouldn't get much sleep because my peers would page me

What makes the difference? Just one of the many abilities that Unix has
always had and that Apple has never been able to develop: memory
protection. On a Mac, if one program misbehaves, the whole computer
crashes, you have no clue what caused it, and you have to reboot the

On a Unix machine, if a program misbehaves, the Unix system, which is
always watching, stops the program, cleans up the mess, saves some
diagnostic information for the system administrator, logs the error,
and the computer and all other programs go right on ticking.

Neither Macintosh nor Microsoft has anything to sell to take the place
of Unix. "Windows NT leapfrogs Unix," says the marketing hype. That is

If "leapfrogs" is referring to sales, then it is becoming true. But
Windows NT is still a juvenile operating system compared to Unix. It is
Microsoft's first true operating system, but it still lacks the
versatility and robustness of Unix. It's vastly better than the pitiful
stuff that Microsoft has sold in the past (like DOS and Windows 3.1).
Many people in my position are willing to give Windows NT to single
users, but we're still hesitant to put it in places where it could hurt
more than one person. Microsoft is well aware of this, I might add, and
has brought in some pretty darn good engineers to try to fix it.

Next Software Inc. - recently bought by Apple and brought in to provide
a new OS - is a nine-year-old technology, say some publications
(including Business Week). Well, yes. Your eye is pretty old
technology, too, but the age of your eye has to do with evolution, not
with obsolescence. Unix came into the world around 1970, and it was
those incredible old engineers at Bell Labs who created it. Since then,
despite its fragmentation after AT&T sold it, Unix has evolved, and it
still handles newfangled demanding tasks such as internetworking better
than any other operating system.

Next is Unix. Steve Jobs correctly diagnosed what was wrong with the
Mac OS years ago, and he fixed it when he gave the world his black-box
Next computers back in the late '80s. The mass market for technology,
however, is not very smart or very rich, and it rejected Next as too
complicated and too expensive.

I got hold of a Next black box back then, and I did my best to evaluate
it as a newspaper publishing platform to succeed the Mac. My
conclusion: An almost perfect publishing work station, with its robust
Unix OS and its ahead-of-its-time (and ahead-of-the-Mac) graphical user
interface. It was Postscript through and through - including even the
monitor display.

The only problem was that the software we needed for publishing never
was released for Next. That fact had nothing to do with technology. It
was because Next didn't sell well, and it wasn't worthwhile for Quark
and Adobe to port their products to Next. (Adobe released one version
of Illustrator for Next, but it wasn't enough.) Without software
developers and a big market, a new box or new OS dies, and that's what
ruined Next.

That brings us to exactly what Microsoft is good at: If a product is
marketed well and sells well, then software developers will produce
software for it, and the availability of all those many kinds of
software causes hardware sales to grow. Growth cascades, with hardware
sales stimulating software sales and vice versa.

The truest thing that anyone ever said about Microsoft is: "Microsoft
is not a technology company. Microsoft is a marketing company."

In other words, superior technology (like Next) often fails in the
marketplace, and causes good companies to go broke. And inferior
technology often succeeds in the marketplace, and causes bad companies
to make billions (like the Death Star in Redmond, Wash.).

This is why I, along with many in Silicon Valley, am such a Microsoft
hater, and that is why the Apple-Netscape-Sun alliance against
Microsoft is such a holy war. It is the lovers of beauty and elegance
vs. the apologists for technological ugliness and brute marketing

So what does Apple's future look like? One of the scariest indicators
I've read about was Herb Greenberg's piece in the Chronicle on Jan. 8
on how the bond market doesn't think much of Apple's future. The stock
market is too often irrational, misled by emotion and inertia into
overvalued peaks and undervalued troughs. But the bond market is much
colder, guided by spreadsheets. If the bond market is worried about
Apple, then I'm worried, too.

>From a business point of view, I wouldn't bet a nickel either way, and
I don't own any Apple stock, long or short. (I don't have any Microsoft
stock either, but that's for, ah, moral, not business, reasons, like
tobacco stock.)

>From a technology point of view, I do believe that Next has what Apple
needs, though it's about eight years later than it should have been. It
also remains to be seen whether Apple's System 7 and the Next OS can be
quickly and happily married.

Some of Apple's most loyal customers are in publishing. If, in a year
or so, Apple has something to sell us that we can use and that can beat
Microsoft's products, then at least they'll have a niche, and they'll
get good press.

As for Microsoft, they have a nice cash cushion, but I do think they're
vulnerable if we have an economic downturn that catches them
overstaffed and overextended and if they fail to fend off the threats
from the "Java-and-browser-as-OS" proponents and the network computer.

IBM once had to learn a little humility. It could happen to Microsoft,
too, nimble though they are. I would love to see the Microsoft myth die
in a quarter or two of red ink, and it is not unthinkable, unlikely
though it seems in these boom times.

Personally, I would love to see worried people in Redmond getting great
offers from Silicon Valley. I very much buy the argument that
Microsoft's power limits our choices and kills superior technology.