Excursus: UUNET

By the mid-1980s there were several commercial networks in operation. But they were limited in service and, generally quite high in price. None was what we would think of as an ISP.

In the Autumn of 1985, Rick Adams (then at "seismo"), approached Debbie Scherrer, vice-president of USENIX, with a plan for a centralized site, accessed via Tymnet by subscribers, supplying Usenet access. 1 In an email dated December 6, 1985, Debbie expressed interest in this.

Rick attended the October 1986 Board meeting in Monterey, CA, where reaction was mixed, one director asking why folks would pay for access that could be obtained free. But the Board agreed to entertain a proposal. Rick brought a brief plan to the January 1987 (Washington, DC) meeting.

A majority of the USENIX Board liked the plan, but it really wasn't much of a "business plan," and Rick was asked to fill out the plan, with the participation of Board members John Quarterman and Wally Wedel, and return.

By late March 1987 (in New Orleans), Rick was back with a full plan and the Board approved it enthusiastically. I was authorized to spend up to $35,000 for an experimental period. 2

UUNET was born. "As people moved from universities and corporations where they had email and Usenet access to jobs where they had no access," Rick told me, "a need developed for a service that could provide email and Usenet access. UUNET was created in response to that need."

When the word got out, the demand far exceeded expectations. For example, Rick and Mike O'Dell had forecast 50 subscribers by the "end of summer." They topped 50 by mid-June 1987. Five years later, they had several thousand customers. UUNET reincorporated as a for-profit and then had its IPO. There is a long and interesting history; but this is not the place for it.

The important thing is that UUNET initiated commercial delivery of USENET and the Internet.

Chapter 11. OSF and UNIX International

In 1987, AT&T purchased a sizable percentage of Sun Microsystems and there was a joint announcement that they would be involved in a grand merger of System V and BSD. Moreover, AT&T announced that Sun would receive "preferential treatment" as AT&T/USL [UNIX Systems Laboratories] developed new software. Sun announced that its next operating system would not be a further extension of SunOS.

The scientific community felt that Sun was turning its back on them. The manufacturers felt that the special relationship would mean that Sun would get the jump on them. Great cries of praise did not go up from the computer manufacturers.

"When Sun and AT&T announced the alliance," Armando Stettner told me, "we at Digital were concerned that AT&T was no longer the benign, benevolent progenitor of UNIX . . . Sun was everyone's most aggressive competitor. We saw Sun's systems were direct replacements for the VAX. Just think: the alliance combined our most aggressive and innovative competitor with the sole source of the system software -- the balance shifted."

On 7 January 1988 there was a meeting at DEC's Western Offices in Palo Alto, CA. There were participants from Apollo, DEC, Gould Electronics, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell-Bull, InfoCorp, MIPS, NCR, Silicon Graphics, UniSoft, and Unisys. The group (called "the Hamilton Group," because DEC's building was at 100 Hamilton Avenue) sent a telegram to James E. Olson, CEO of AT&T, requesting a meeting "during the week of January 25" with Vittorio Cassoni (Senior VP of AT&T's Data Systems Division).

Larry Lytel of HP called a preliminary meeting of the group at the JFK Marriott for the evening of 27 January. The meeting with Cassoni took place the next day. There was a follow-up meeting of the Hamilton Group in Dallas on 9 February. The meeting with Cassoni had had no positive effect where the Group was concerned. (It's not clear whether AT&T took the Group seriously. It appears that Cassoni just thought of this as jockeying for commercial advantage.) In March, IBM was invited to join.

Apollo, DEC, HP, IBM, Bull, Nixdorf, and Siemens held semi-secret meetings and in May 1988, the formation of the Open Software Foundation was announced. (The Wall Street Journal for May 18 noted that no one present at the launch of OSF could recall ever seeing Ken Olsen sharing a stage with an IBM chief executive.)

Ken Thompson was in Australia at the time. When Ritchie told him what had transpired, he said: "Just think, IBM and DEC in one room and we did it!"

The seven companies listed above were joining hands to produce a new UNIX kernel and a new user interface. Their "temporary" headquarters would be in Lawrence, MA. A delegation of executives (loaned to OSF from their various corporations) attended the USENIX Conference in San Francisco in June.

It didn't take long for AT&T, Sun and their coterie to form a counter-consortium, UNIX International, dedicated to the marketing of SVR4.

OSF quickly named its executive team, including David Tory (Computer Associates) as President; and Roger Gourd (DEC), Ira Goldstein (HP), and Alex McKenzie (IBM) among the Vice Presidents.

UI appointed Peter Cunningham (ICL) as President.

By the end of 1989, Gourd's engineering team had come out with a new user interface, Motif, which was well-received, and Goldstein's research team had chosen Mach as the underlying kernel for the OS. OSF also increased its number of sponsors, adding Hitachi and Philips. However, as HP swallowed up Apollo and Siemens bought Nixdorf, at year end there were still seven sponsors.

Both OSF and UI ran membership drives and gave out pens and badges and stickers. Each ended up with about 200 members.

In 1991-92 the worldwide economy worsened. Bull, DEC, IBM, and the computer side of Siemens all lost money. AT&T resold its share of Sun. The fierce mudslinging appeared to be over. (At one point there was even a rumor of OSF and UI merging, for the good of UNIX.)

It hardly seemed to matter: Sun had adopted Motif; in 1993 USL sold UNIX to Novell, whereupon UI disbanded; OSF abandoned several of its previously announced products (shrink-wrapped software and the distributed management environment); Bull, Philips and Siemens withdrew from sponsorship of OSF.

Armando remarked to me: "It's not clear whether there's any purpose to OSF any more."

In 1984 a group of UNIX vendors had formed a consortium, X/Open, to sponsor standards. It was incorporated in 1987 and based in London. In 1996 OSF merged with X/Open to become The Open Group.

X/Open owned the UNIX trademark, which passed on to The Open Group. The Group also took on Motif and the Common Desktop Environment (CDE).

But the Open Group maintained its concern with standards, and is the sponsor of the Single UNIX Specification. It has also taken on sponsorship of other standards including CORBA and the Linux Standard Base.

1Tymnet was an early proprietary network, first set up parallel to the ARPAnet by Tymshare, Inc., using Interdata 7/32s as nodes. In 1979, Tymnet was spun off by Tymshare and bought up by McDonnell-Douglas in 1984. In 1989, BT North America bought Tymnet from McDonnell-Douglas. In 1993, MCI bought Tymnet from BT North America for stock. Tymnet survived MCI's acquisition by WorldCom, but was finally closed down in 2004.

2 At that time I was Executive Director of the USENIX Association. I handled the UUNET application for not-for-profit status, the liaison with the lawyer, and signed all the checks for about 14 months. Over that period, the USENIX Board increased its "advance" to over $100,000. In only a few years, UUNET repaid all its debt.