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Eric S. Raymond -- Ken Thompson clarifies matters

May 07, 1999, 21:43 (10 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)

by Eric S. Raymond

In a recent interview http://computer.org/computer/thompson.htm, Ken Thompson (the inventor of Unix) said some unkind things about Linux. Like many other people, I found this a rather shocking development. I wrote him a note requesting clarification, and Ken has graciously given me permission to quote the things he wrote in our subsequent exchange of views.

The best news, I guess, is that Ken says he didn't intend to write off Linux itself as simply an anti-Microsoft backlash; what he was trying to say was that he believes the recent popularity of Linux in the press is an anything-but-Microsoft phenomenon. He adds ``i very much appreciate the chance to look at available code when i am faced with the task of interfacing to some nightmare piece of hardware'' and that ``i think the open software movement (and linux in particular) is laudable.''

Ken further adds ``i dont see eye-to-eye with microsoft's business practices.'' His original language was rather stronger and more entertaining, but he asked me not to quote that in order to avoid giving Lucent's lawyers heart failure.

The bad news is that Ken still thinks Linux is flaky. I offered to have VA Linux Labs ship him a machine so he could see what a properly tuned modern Linux looks like, but he said he couldn't accept. He adds ``i do believe that in a race, it is naive to think linux has a hope of making a dent against microsoft starting from way behind with a fraction of the resources and amateur labor. (i feel the same about unix.)''

I cited all the case studies and trend curves and statistics you'd expect me to. He didn't respond directly to those, but I hope I at least gave him some things to think about.

Ken did finish by saying ``i must say the linux community is a lot nicer than the unix community. a negative comment on unix would warrent death threats. with linux, it is like stirring up a nest of butterflies.'' (Hm. Butterfly T-shirts, anyone?)

Overall, Ken didn't seem hostile or bitter to me, as some people charged after the interview. He sounded more like somebody who's had high hopes for his children dashed so many times that he won't let himself believe that this time might be the charm.

It's up to us to prove him wrong -- and by so doing to prove him right.

                Eric S. Raymond

The whole of the Bill [of Rights] is a declaration of the right of the
people at large or considered as individuals...  It establishes some
rights of the individual as unalienable and which consequently, no
majority has a right to deprive them of.
         -- Albert Gallatin, Oct 7 1789