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1977: Berkeley UNIX and the Start of Open-Source Software

Bill Joy

Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, spent hours tricking out code for the UNIX operating system as a Berkeley Engineering graduate student. Sun Microsystems photo

In 1969, UC Berkeley electrical engineering graduate Kenneth Thompson and his Bell Laboratories colleague Dennis Ritchie wanted to play a computer game called "Space Travel" on a dusty old mainframe computer. To do it, the two were forced to write a new operating system for the machines. The end result was UNIX, still the industry standard operating system, in various flavors, for workstation and networked computing and a key component in the Internet's infrastructure.

Three years after Bell Laboratories released the first commercial version of UNIX in 1971, UC Berkeley computer science professor Bob Fabry obtained a copy of the $99 operating system to cut costs in setting up the campus's computing resources and, of course, for his students' experimentation. These were hardcore hackers in the original sense of the word - individuals who use technical know-how to push a computer to its limits and beyond. Spearheaded by graduate student Bill Joy, who went on to co-found Sun Microsystems, Fabry's students spent infinite hours tricking out Thompson and Ritchie's original code with new features. (Coincidentally, Thompson returned to Berkeley that same year as a visiting professor on sabbatical from Bell Labs.)

Early in 1977, responding to requests for copies of their tricked-out version of the operating system, Joy released Berkeley UNIX under the official moniker BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution). While Joy charged a small fee for copies of BSD, it was essentially available to anyone who wanted it, enabling a world of hackers to improve on his group's improvements. Those upgrades were then filtered by Joy and his team for incorporation into future releases. This revolutionary paradigm in software distribution is now known as Open Source - the source code, the raw programming behind the software, is accessible for anyone to build upon and change.

Almost immediately, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency became BSD buffs, enabling Fabry to negotiate the funding of additional research and the formation of the Computer Science Research Group (CSRG) at the University. One of the CSRG's tasks was outfitting BSD with a way for BSD-running computers to talk with each other over ARPANET, the governmental predecessor to the Internet. Rising to the occasion, Bill Joy created an elegant framework for how Arpanet computers could interconnect and integrated the TCP/IP protocol, the lingua franca of today's Internet, into Berkeley UNIX.

After legal battles in the early 1990s with an AT&T (formerly Bell Labs) subsidiary, BSD became truly free. Today, with its direct descendants behind Web sites like Yahoo! and Microsoft Hotmail, Berkeley UNIX is holding its ground against the wildly popular UNIX derivative Linux in the battle for industry dominance.