IS, Friends, All: Lend Us Your Ears

John Dodge

To flip-flop a line from Shakespeare, they came to praise Unix, not to bury it. Four high-profile CEOs stumped for Unix at UniForum in San Francisco last week. It would have been difficult to assemble a stronger list of keynote speakers: Louis Gerstner from IBM, Lew Platt from Hewlett-Packard, Scott McNealy from Sun Microsystems, and Alok Mohan from SCO. Only you-know-who, once a Unix (Xenix) man himself, was missing.

Like many show-goers, I went away unconvinced that much has changed with Unix. DEC, HP, IBM, and Sun have built billion-dollar businesses on Unix servers (the volume desktop battle was lost long ago). One source said DEC sells five Alpha-based Unix servers for every one loaded with NT. Then we hear (and perhaps indiscriminately write) NT is starting to eat Unix's lunch.

Proselytizing about open interfaces, standards, open computing, and choice is as risky as pushing family values in the presidential primaries. They freely beat up Microsoft for pushing proprietary systems and standards. SCO CIO Michael Tilson chided Microsoft for "debasing" the term "open."

They beat each other up a bit, too. Asked if Sun would support the emerging SCO-HP 3DA Unix spec, McNealy rattled his saber: "Solaris is the Unix volume leader. If their [specifications] don't comply with Solaris, they've got a problem. Doing things as a twosome must be embarrassing for them," McNealy said. The more things change ...

Gerstner, in a canned, uninspiring speech, praised openness, poked fun at the old closed IBM, and took some oblique shots at Microsoft. He claimed he has talked to "100,000" customers in his first thousand-or-so days at IBM. If he has actually met with 100 customers a day since taking the Big Blue helm in April 1993, he shared none of what he has learned with the UniForum crowd. After his speech, Gerstner sprinted from Moscone Center, lest he risk disruption to his scripted appearance.

A slightly more animated Platt coughed up some favorable Unix numbers, dropped a news tidbit or two, and took questions from the press.

McNealy, in an entertaining and energetic Java stem-winder, said very little about Unix. Instead, he showcased the Java Appliance, a device the size of a dictionary containing a SPARC CPU and 8M bytes of RAM. He talked a lot about Java and advised 1,500 show-goers to freeze their mainframe and personal productivity software budgets and spend more on networks.

Various efforts to create a single Unix have come and gone. Now they say a single Unix was a bad idea, anyway--as bad as the notion of a single database vendor. By the way, two of Unix's strongest adherents, Oracle and Sybase, did not bother to show up at UniForum.

Unix will endure in all its slightly different versions, mostly to accommodate different hardware platforms. Related pieces like TCP/IP already have emerged, but the Unix OS, despite lasting technical superiority, is likely to remain a classic underachiever.

Who out there is passionate about Unix? Write me at or 72241,303.

Like many show-goers, I went away unconvinced that much has changed with Unix.

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