Unix dynamic duo awarded Japan Prize

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Gray beard Bell Labs scientists and Unix operating system co-creators Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson have been awarded the 2011 Japan Prize for information and communications.

Ritchie worked at Bell Labs (in its many incarnations) until he retired in 2007. Thompson held positions at Bell Labs as well as at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Sydney and is currently a distinguished engineer at search engine behemoth Google. Ritchie was the primary creator of the C programming language, arguably the most popular and cursed-at programming language in the history of the world.

Dennis Ritchie, C and Unix creator

C maker and Unix co-creator Dennis Ritchie

Ritchie and Thompson originally created the time-sharing Unix in assembly language for the PDP-11 minicomputer from Digital Equipment Corp back in 1969, and when they tried to port it to the Basic Combined Programming Language (developed at the University of Cambridge in the mid-1960s), it didn't work. So they ripped the guts out of the BPCL compiler to create the B compiler and then tweaked it to run on the PDP-11 and voila, we get the C compiler. The two then ported Unix from assembler to this C compiler.

At that moment, the commercial Internet as we know it was inevitable and didn't take any encouragement from Al Gore, either.

Ken Thompson, Unix Creator

Unix co-creator Ken Thompson

Because C and Unix variants were so widely adopted, the idea of application portability between platforms was eventually possible, and with the Berkeley Systems Distribution of Unix, open source distribution of Unix and, other software, such as the TCP/IP protocol, portability took root in the academic computing culture. Technologies often perculate in academia for a decade or two and then move out to broader corporate adoption, and the open systems revolution stormed the data center in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That paved the way for unified networks, and once TCP/IP protocol affiliated with Unix systems took over the ISPs of the world and beat out IBM's SNA and myriad other protocols in the corporate data center, it was no time at all before all systems spoke the same network and could easily interchange data.

Perhaps as significantly, the APIs and standards that make up a Unix system have been widely adopted by the key remaining proprietary operating systems, including IBM's z/OS and OS/400 and, with some add-ons, Microsoft's Services for Unix, even Windows can pretend to be a Unix platform. Unix won the platform wars, but not exactly in the way that many had predicted twenty years ago.

Linux, while not technically Unix, iterated on some of the same open source ideas that early Unixes employed and it has become a reasonable alternative to the commercial Unixes offered by Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. Plenty of people argue that the BSD Unixes are better operating systems than any Linux distro you can point at, and not even people of the stature of Ritchie and Thompson or Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, can settle such an argument. So EL Reg sure as hell can't.

What we can do is be thankful for C and Unix and the more open computing world that Ritchie and Thompson helped build just by trying to make their own systems better and their own lives easier.

The Japan Prize was established in 1985 to honor significant contributions to science and technology during the peak of Japanese economic and technical might and before it entered its 20-year doldrums. Since that time, 70 laureates from 13 countries have received the prize, which carries a $600,000 award for each category. Ritchie and Thompson will be splitting the award.

In 1983, the Association for Computing Machinery awarded the Unix dynamic duo the Turing Award for their contributions to IT as well as for Unix, and in 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded the pair the National Medal of Honor for the contributions of Unix and C. ®

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