Shortly after Dennis Ritchie died, J.D. Long (@cmastication) tweeted perhaps the perfect comment on Ritchie’s life: “Dennis Ritchie was the architect whose chapel ceiling Steve Jobs painted.” There aren’t many who remember the simplicity and the elegance of the Unix system that Jobs made beautiful, and even fewer who remember the complexity and sheer awfulness of what went before: the world of IBM’s S/360 mainframes, JCL, and DEC’s RSX-11.
Much of what was important about the history of Unix is still in OS X, but under the surface. It would have been almost inconceivable for Apple to switch from the PowerPC architecture to the Intel architecture if Unix wasn’t written in C (and its successors), and wasn’t designed to be portable to multiple hardware platforms. Unix was the first operating system designed for portability. Portability isn’t noticeable to the consumer, but it was crucial to Apple’s long-term strategy.
OS X applications have become all-consuming things: you can easily pop from email to iTunes to Preview and back again. It’s easy to forget one key component of the original Unix philosophy: simple tools that did one thing, did it well, and could be connected to each other with pipes (Doug McIlroy’s invention). But simple tools that date back to the earliest days of Unix still live on, and are still elegantly useful.
Dennis Ritchie once said “UNIX is basically a simple operating system, but you have to be a genius to understand the simplicity.” It’s true. And we need more geniuses who share his spirit.