The Philosophy of Freedom

It's a year and a half now since CUUG had one of the most interesting (and loud) meetings in years, a panel discussion with the topic "Unix or NT or both?" (The November 1995 meeting) That's a full generation in most hardware and software, and much of what was forseen then is coming to pass.

Windows NT, with steady improvements in stability, and great leaps in availability of hardware drivers and ease-of-use, is now rapidly taking over as the desktop system of choice for heavy applications such as CAD, numerical modelling and databases. Unix workstations that formerly were the only sensible choice for all such needs are rapidly being pushed into the "very large needs" niche. Unix will certainly continue to have a role running servers, but for the corporate world where much of the money lies, Unix is losing the desktop.

The person who made that prediction in 1995 was Terry Ingoldsby, who also offered this poetic defense of Unix that night: "Unix is, above all, a philosophy of freedom."

This is the safest definition of the term that I have ever heard, because it is the most general. If you want specific definitions, then you will get very different answers depending on whether you ask AT&T (who would remind me that I should have been putting "TM" beside the word), adherents of BSD, fans of QNX, or Solaris, or AIX, or Ultrix.

Disputes between the partisans of different computing tools are called "religious wars" because of the fervor and faith behind the "logical reasons" that are offered in the arguments. One of the best metaphors for differences between computing philosophies ever invented is religious. Italian author and semiotician Umberto Eco (of "Name of the Rose" fame) is often quoted for his explanation of the differences between personal computers.

The Mac, he says, is like Catholicism: while the rules of the system are entirely controlled at the origin, it offers a straightforward, easily followed set of steps for everyone to reach salvation (or at least the moment your document is printed). DOS, on the other hand, is like Protestantism: it allows everybody to mess with the details of the system and interpretation of the original scripture - and takes for granted that not everybody is going to be saved. Pushing the metaphor a little, Eco jokes that then Windows must be Anglicanism - the appearance of Catholic simplicity and rigidity, but you can always sneak out to DOS and change a few things.

Seen through this lens, the constellation of operating systems that are variants of Unix are far better examples of Protestantism than DOS. Unix has a philosophy of freedom because it allows customization and configuration of the operating system at a far deeper level and greater degree than DOS ever did. While many variants of Unix arose by deliberate decision of hardware manufacturers to create value-added products that distinguished them from the rest of the marketplace, Unix from its inception encouraged the creation of "different sects" because everybody had the freedom to alter it right down to the kernel level, and grow attached to the virtues of their version.

The trouble with freedom is, it's expensive. This is true in politics (dictatorship is a far more efficient system), in economics (think how few resources would go into the clothing industry if we all wore uniforms), and certainly in corporate computing - the yearly expense of supporting personal computers in corporations exceeds their purchase price.

Corporate information systems managers are keen to bring this cost down, principally by making every system the same and centrally administrated. Microsoft operating systems win the choice hands down because they run the most software. Many of the people making the choice prefer Unix for their own problems, knowing it to be more powerful and flexible in many ways - but they must pick one system that satisfies the most application needs.

Unix solutions are not disqualified directly because they offer more freedom. Of course, administrators don't want the users themselves controlling the system (i.e. screwing it up) and will "lock down" what configurability Windows does have - as they would also do with Unix workstations. The administrators do want as much freedom as they can get for themselves to tailor the system.

But Unix disqualified itself from ever being the corporate operating system of choice right from its origin, because of the side-effects of its philosophy of freedom. It guaranteed that a wide variety of Unix variants and "sects" would arise - fragmenting their market and ensuring that a smaller number of applications would be created for any one of the solutions.

No Microsoft of the Unix market ever could have arisen - the choices they made in the design of their Unix would always have had alternatives that were better for some customers, and another Unix would have been created to sell to them. It took less then two centuries after St. Paul for the One True Church to dominate all Christianity - but from the very nature of Protestantism, there is no sign of a reduction in the number of Protestant denominations, nearly five centuries after Luther. New sects cleave off from old ones every time a need is seen for a theology that responds to a new idea.

I've heard system administrators, at CUUG and elsewhere, lament the new world order of Microsoft desktop shops and the disappearance of Unix workstations for most of their users. It is true that much that much will be lost in such a change. Yet there remains considerable room for customization and especially for innovation and creativity. We will not have lost the most important thing about Unix if we keep the very heart of it in the workplace: the philosophy of freedom.

Roy Brander

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