Unix co-inventor gives a glimpse into the future

One of the men whose creations shaped computing as we now know it gave a School of Engineering and Applied Science crowd a glimpse of the future of his best-known product in a lecture Nov. 12.

Dennis M. Ritchie, who created the Unix operating system along with Bell Labs colleague Ken Thompson in the 1970s, delivered this year’s Harold Pender Lecture on “Unix and Beyond: Themes of Operating Systems Research at Bell Labs” to an audience that overflowed Levine Hall’s Wu and Chen Auditorium, forcing many to watch on television monitors outside.

Ritchie and Thompson received this year’s Harold Pender Award, given annually by the Electrical and Systems Engineering Department to members of the engineering profession who have made significant contributions to society. They were recognized for their work on Unix and the C programming language, which is the technical foundation for most of today’s complex software applications. Thompson was unable to attend the event.

Ritchie’s talk focused on future prospects for operating systems derived from Unix. The bulk of his talk was devoted to two such products, Plan 9 and Inferno.

Unix set a new standard for portability when it was released, because it could run on virtually any computer. According to Ritchie, Plan 9 takes this idea a step further: It is designed to run networked systems of smaller computers, tying them together to utilize their combined processing power, something Unix could not be adapted to do.

One of Plan 9’s other advances, Ritchie said, is the increased control over the computing environment it gives the end user. Ritchie said that under Plan 9, a user can create a personal computing environment that can be run from any networked computer. Its interface uses the metaphor of the filing cabinet to organize not only documents and applications but also system resources such as other computers, storage devices and printers.

Inferno takes Plan 9’s ideas and applies them to a wide range of computerized devices, including TV set-top boxes, game consoles and handheld personal computers. It can also run as a virtual operating system under PC operating systems such as Windows and Unix.

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Originally published on December 11, 2003