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Read about the birth of UNIX in the early 1970s and you see a closely linked effect on open source software (OSS) as we know it today. Trace the OSS concept back further through IT history and you find MIT and Bell Labs. That makes sense as well. But what did GE, IBM, DEC and the founders of the Lakeside Programming Group have to do with OSS? It's less clear but the outline is strong. Through the 1970s, what we think of as OSS today was just the way software was done.

In the beginning, software development was dictated by the technology-not culture or philosophy. Before 1960, technology dictated that computing would be centralized. I am not talking 'centralized' as in Oracle's single-instance vision of running an enterprise today; I am talking 'centralized' as in U.S. government economists predicted there might never be the need for more than a dozen computers. That prediction was of course based on what computers could do at that time and how much it cost to build them. It just didn't make sense that people would use vacuum tubes to replace mechanical calculators.

By 1970, when secretaries were starting to get their own Electronic typewriters and you could find a growing number of single-purpose minicomputers stuck in corners of research labs and on factory floors, analysts were admitting that maybe GM, Ford, McDonnell Douglas and a few government agencies and universities might actually be able to use their own electronic data processing (EDP) machines.

At that point, economists were predicting a few tens of thousands of discrete EDP systems-worldwide. Other than that, when it came to business and academic computing at least, the rest of us could get by with a couple of dozen computer centers in the United States. All of us would share our computer center's power in time slices, probably with plenty of time left over to oil the -inch tape drive mechanisms. One of those potential time-sharing centers was at MIT in Cambridge, MA. Working with grants and in-kind support from GE and Bell Labs, in 1965 MIT launched a follow on to its initial time-sharing software studies.

The new project went by the acronym Multics (for Multiplexed Information and Computing Service). Multics introduced-or perfected commercially-features such as a segmented ring memory with an integrated file system; a virtual memory derived from the breakthrough UK Atlas system; operating software mostly written in a high-level language, PL/1, for the first time; a shared memory multiprocessor; multi-language support (including support for BASIC, which had been developed on another time-sharing system at Dartmouth), a relational database that debuted before Oracle's; and security, on-line reconfiguration, and software engineering features that took many years to permeate the rest of the industry. Multics debuted commercially in 1972 and the last system was decommissioned in 2000.


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