Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Do you recognize these men?

Although it is hard to attribute vast, life-altering impacts to just one or two individuals, we often do credit just such things to a small number of people.  Undoubtedly, without their talents and guidance, the contributions they made would not have happened.  Do you recognize these two people?

Chances are, you recognize the bespectacled one.  He started a business in his parents' garage with his partner.  This business took off, became fairly successful, only to fall years later due to stiff competition (and perhaps arguably leadership issues).  He was ousted from his CEO position by the board of directors, and used his buyout money to purchase a little-known startup called Pixar Studios from Disney.  After a phenomenal growth, he sold it years later back to Disney, and was asked back to help, you guessed it, Apple Computers, Inc. to avoid liquidation bankruptcy.  Of course, he steered it to become the richest company in the world, and personally guided the development of products that altered the course of human kind, and have impacted everything from our daily activities to pop culture, totally revolutionized the way business is done in multiple, completely different industries (Film, Cell Phone, Mobile Computing, Desktop & Laptop Computing, Personal Music, Music Retail, and more).  Steve Jobs has been quite celebrated.

So who's the unbespectacled dude, the man upon whose shoulders Steve Jobs built his life-altering products?  At the time Apple was struggling, the Mac operating system (OS) was a proprietary closed architecture, something developed in-house by Apple.  Steve made a gutsy move to alter the Mac OS to a UNIX-based one.  Since the last non-Unix version was OS 9, this one was 10, but since it was also UNIX-based, they used the Roman numeral and called it OS X.  This guy on the left co-developed UNIX way back in the early days (under funding from AT&T Bell Labs as a project to develop a computerized telephone switching system), and he developed the key programming language in which UNIX was written, and which is the basic language used to develop most software.  In fact, this language is the source for many other more specialized or advanced languages.  This is known as C (the third language after A and B).  To give you a sense of exactly how impactful it is, let's put it this way.  The most popular programming languages in computers today for software development are by far, C++, C#, Objective-C, Java, Perl, PHP, and Visual BASIC.  All except the last one are direct C derivatives.  In fact, many OS's were also written in C, including the original Mac OS iterations 1 - 9.  And, when I talk about computers, I mean any computing device - including TV's, Blu Ray players, the computer in your car, the control circuitry in your kitchen appliances - not just computers, smart phones, and tablets.  Heck, even the parking meter kiosk - all of these and more are primarily UNIX-derivative OS's (including Android, Chrome OS, and more), and the vast majority developed with a C-derived language.  C-derived languages are vital on the Windows platform as well.

Winner of the Turing Award in Computer Science in 1983, Dennis Ritchie was key and instrumental not just in Apple's turnaround (indirectly), but as a basis for computing in just about all modern programming languages and operating systems.  Linux is actually a re-issue of UNIX by a guy named Linus Torvaald, and over 600 derivatives of Linux exist today, installed and running on dozens of millions of computers worldwide, everything from work and home computers to backbone servers on the Internet.  And, that's not to mention all the pre-Linux UNIX operating systems still in use today in critical systems throughout the world, like HP/UX, AIX, BSD (from which OS X is derived), SCO, Solaris, and more.  In fact, the Internet first was developed and worked on UNIX systems (before Linux, and yes, before Al Gore).  It is actually quite impossible to overstate the impact Dennis Ritchie has had on everyone's lives through technology derived from his works.

In Biography Channel's "100 People -1000 years," a video I was glued to early in 2000 when it came out, they counted down to the top most influential person of the past millennium.  Since 1,000 CE, there were a lot of people.  Albert Einstein was up there, so was Adolf Hitler, and many others.  But who was considered number 1, and why?  Let me not spoil it in case you want to watch the video.  But I will say the one who they chose invented something which was considered a key enabler of all the others who "stood on his shoulders" - and such a nexus was Dennis Ritchie.  You can pretty much forget anything you ever knew or heard of about computers without his works, because they were quite unusable before he made them.

As an illustration, CP/M was an early operating system based on UNIX, but developed for small computers.  Bill Gates bought the rights to a derivative of CP/M called Disk Operating System (DOS), and that's how Microsoft started.  All of the Apple Macintosh OS and software (and its derivative, iOS or iPhone/iPod/iPad operating system) were written in Objective-C, as you can see everything Steve Jobs accomplished with Apple and Pixar would have been almost impossible without Ritchie's works.  Everything (literally) in computing (and again I mean cell phones, smart phone switches, television, electronic music switchboards - every electronic device in recent decades) can be traced directly back to Dennis Ritchie's works.  And yet, you probably didn't recognize his photo.

Well, now you know.  Next time you push a button on your remote control, think about the C-based software used to program the remote by the manufacturer.  When you push the "Brew" button on your coffee maker, or the "Start" button on your dishwasher, turn your car on - in fact, every thing you do that involves a modern electronic device, you owe it to someone who used Dennis Ritchie's C and UNIX inventions.

Pass it on!

No comments:

Post a Comment