Remembering the Giants
This month, the world lost two giants of computing. Steve Jobs died on Oct 5th, 2011 after a long illness. His remarkable story and influential legacy has been covered extensively in the news and social media. A week later, Dennis Ritchie died at the age of 70. His death did not receive as much attention in the media, but his legacy is as influential as that of Jobs, if not more.
Dennis Ritchie (left) with Ken Thompson in 1972. Photograph: nushackers.org via The Guardian
Dennis Ritchie is the creator of the C programming language, considered to be the most widely used programming language of all time.
And Dr. Richie is also the co-creator of Unix. The Unix operating system is found everywhere today from running huge data centers to the smartphone in your pocket. The impact of Dennis Ritchie's creations reaches beyond the computer code; Unix and C also ushered in a new way of building software:
Steve Lohr writes in The New York Times:
The C language and Unix reflected a point of view, a different philosophy of computing than what had come before. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, minicomputers were moving into companies and universities — smaller and at a fraction of the price of hulking mainframes.
Minicomputers represented a step in the democratization of computing, and Unix and C were designed to open up computing to more people and collaborative working styles. Mr. Ritchie, Mr. Thompson and their Bell Labs colleagues were making not merely software but, as Mr. Ritchie once put it, "a system around which fellowship can form."
And this is exactly how history unfolded.
Dr. Ritchie and Unix co-creator Ken Thompson worked for AT&T's Bell Labs. John Naughton writes in The Guardian:
"...the researchers in Bell Labs did what geeks do -- they gave [Unix] away to their peers in university research labs, under a licence that permitted the recipients to modify and improve it. In doing this Ritchie and Thompson unwittingly launched the academic discipline of computer science, because university departments were suddenly able to give their students software that was not only powerful (and malleable) but also free. The result was that virtually every computer science student in the world became a Unix geek."
Years later, when AT&T tried to make Unix proprietary, MIT programmer Richard Stallman created a non-proprietary clone of Unix with the recursive title of GNU (GNU's Not Unix). GNU, combined with the Linux kernel, is "one of the greatest collaborative ventures the world has seen" and led to the phenomenal growth of open source software. Unix turned out to be what Dennis Ritchie hoped it would be -- "a system around which fellowship can form."
Today, around the world, routers, servers, TV set-top boxes, tablets, and smartphones run descendants of Linux & Unix. If you use a modern digital computing device connected to the Internet, you are a Unix user.
As Apple's customers cradle their iPhones or tap away on Macbooks, many probably do not realize that these devices also have a Unix heritage. The Mac OSX operating system and the iOS mobile operating system are derived from Unix variants.
Steve Wozniak (left) with Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs was highly influential in shaping our digital world. The products he created were game-changers and trend-setters. He was a visionary and a source of inspiration. One of the iconic images we have of Jobs is of him dressed in his signature black turtleneck and blue jeans, giving an enthralling keynote and launching a new product. But here is a clip of Steve Jobs from a different time that I believe reveals one of the secrets to Apple's, and Steve Jobs' success.
It's 1997. Apple is in trouble and has brought back Steve Jobs as an adviser. (In 1985, Steve Jobs was ousted from the company he founded). The event is Apple's annual World Wide Developer Conference. Steve Jobs goes on stage to take questions directly from developers. One member of the audience starts his question by telling Steve that he "is a bright and influential man" but that "you don't know what you are talking about" regarding a decision to end Apple's work on a technology called OpenDoc. Jobs pauses and then gives a reply that transcends the insult and the specifics of a particular technology and instead focuses on what is really important.
"One of the things I have always found is that you've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can't start with the technology and try to figure out where you are going to try to sell it. And I have made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room and I have got the scar tissue to prove it. And I know it's the case...as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple -- it started with what incredible benefits can we give to the customer, where can we take the customer. Not starting with...let's sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and then how we are going to market that. And I think that is the right path to take."
As I type this on an Apple MacBook Pro, running the Unix-based Mac OSX , and post it to a blog powered by the open source community-built Drupal which is humming away on a Linux server...
Thank you Mr. Jobs. Thank you Dr. Ritchie.