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= Expensive short chronology; most material is available online
By kievite on July 8, 2004
This is an expensive short book with mainly trivial chronological information, 90% of which are freely available on the Internet. As for the history of the first 25 year of Unix it is both incomplete and superficial. Salus is reasonably good as a facts collector (although for a person with his level of access to the Unix pioneers he looks extremely lazy and he essentially missed an opportunity to write a real history, setting for a glossy superficial chronology instead). He probably just felt the market need for such a book and decided to fill the niche.
In my humble opinion Salus lacks real understanding of the technical and social dynamics of Unix development, understanding that can be found, say, in the chapter "Twenty Years of Berkeley Unix from AT&T-Owned to Freely Redistributable" in the book "Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution (O'Reilly, 1999)" (available online). The extended version of this chapter will be published in the second edition of "The Design and Implementation of the 4.4BSD Operating System (Unix and Open Systems Series)" which I highly recommend (I read a preprint at Usenix.)
In any case Kirk McKusick is a real insider, not a former Usenix bureaucrat like Salus. Salus was definitely close to the center of the events; but it is unclear to what extent he understood the events he was close to.
Unix history is a very interesting example how interests of military (DARPA) shape modern technical projects (not always to the detriment of technical quality, quite opposite in case of Unix) and how DARP investment in Unix created completely unforeseen side effect: BSD Unix that later became the first free/open Unix ever (Net2 tape and then Free/Open/NetBSD distributions). Another interesting side of Unix history is that AT&T brass never understood what a jewel they have in hands.
Salus's Usenix position prevented him from touching many bitter conflicts that litter the first 25 years of Unix, including personal conflicts. The reader should be advised that the book represents "official" version of history, and that Salus is, in essence, a court historian, a person whose main task is to put gloss on the events, he is writing about. As far as I understand, Salus never strays from this very safe position.
Actually Unix created a new style of computing, a new way of thinking of how to attack a problem with a computer. This style was essentially the first successful component model in programming. As Frederick P. Brooks Jr (another computer pioneer who early recognized the importance of pipes) noted, the creators of Unix "...attacked the accidental difficulties that result from using individual programs together, by providing integrated libraries, unified file formats, and pipes and filters.". As a non-programmer, in no way Salus is in the position to touch this important side of Unix. The book contains standard and trivial praise for pipes, without understanding of full scope and limitations of this component programming model...
I can also attest that as a historian, Peter Salus can be extremely boring: this July I was unfortunate enough to sit on one of his talks, when he essentially stole from Kirk McKusick more then an hour (out of two scheduled for BSD history section at this year Usenix Technical Conference ) with some paternalistic trivia insulting the intelligence of the Usenix audience, instead of a short 10 min introduction he was expected to give; only after he eventually managed to finish, Kirk McKusick made a really interesting, but necessarily short (he had only 50 minutes left :-) presentation about history of BSD project, which was what this session was about.
An older book by Don Libes's "Life With Unix"(1989) can be recommended as an addition or replacement of this book. This book covers not only Unix history, but also the "Unix programming philosophy". Don Libes is the author of Expect, one of the most brilliant Unix utility. As Jargon File version 3.0 noted "The authors of this book set out to tell you all the things about Unix that tutorials and technical books won't. The result is gossipy, funny, opinionated, downright weird in spots, and invaluable. Along the way they expose you to enough of Unix's history, folklore and humor to qualify as a first-class source for these things. "
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