Two years ago, I started the Ads & Other Gems collection. Two years later, I didn’t post under this section a single time. Shame on me! And it’s not by lack of material. Indeed, over a decade or so, I curated 41,286 digital scans of magazines (~2.13TB), essentially dedicated to computers. That’s a lot of advertisements. Unfortunately, many funny ones are … not funny once taken out of their context – sometimes they are misogynistic and degrading. To make anything meaningful with this rich material would require a lot of time and caution. Time, I don’t have right now.
Nonetheless, I found a good source for my second post: the UNIX Review (later UNIX/World). This technical magazine focused on the UNIX operating system and C programming. Founded in 1983, the magazine covered a pretty wide spread of topics. It disappeared early 2000’s. A good read. For example, in 1984 (Volume 1, number 7), the main paper was about UX-BASIC, a “deep and dark secret.” In short, Bruce Mackinlay wonders why would you use BASIC – OK, a UNIX flavored on – when you have C? Yes, why? Well, read the paper to find out. It certainly motivates me to try out Hewlett-Packard’s technical BASIC with my Integral PC (read here). I sourced a few months ago a ROM containing HP-UX 5 with the technical BASIC. Once I exchange it with the first HP-UX ROM of my prototype IPC, it will make a good post topic.
I have 31 issues of the magazine (18 issues of UR spanning 1984-1985 and 13 issues of UW). I surveyed the ads and found they have a solid historical value. OK, a few of them are funny – to a programmer/power user at least. So, let’s start with those. But before, an observation: I have never seen such a high concentration of names/brands ending in “IX.” Sure, it makes sense; after all, this is a UNIX-related magazine, but I didn’t expect this level of creativity (XINU, SCO–UNIX, XENIX, GENIX, MV/UX, SERIX, etc.).
What do these ads teach us? For example, we can learn that Verdix ADA doesn’t run on Babbage’s differential engine to countess Lovelace’s great regret, that self-derision sells, which makes Prevail using half of its ad’s space claiming that it is full of lies. Parallel reveals a biblical truth, claiming that “@!#«?*” is the most widely-used computer language. That Uniworks will save you from Half-EMACSitis. And my favorite, QMS’s comparative ad with HP: we’ve heard rumors that the guys at H-P are experimenting with a way to make their LaserJet as smart as our SmartWriter (check out the picture). Browsing through these ads, I found three immutable facts about UNIX. I qualify them as immutable since they still apply today; almost 40 years after UNIXes left the field to Linux. Let’s check them out.
Software is UNIX’s Achille’s heel. The advertisements, or lack of them, confirms it. Sure, you can find the usual suspects: Informix SQL, word processing packages by Emerging Technology, software – yes, it is vague – by Emerald One with courage, brains, and heart. A proof that Control GX shampoo with brains is definitively a usurper. Other classics are 3D modeling by CADMUS, or PreView trying to convince us it is WYSIWYG before time and beats NROFF and TROFF, or an integrated spreadsheet and graphics SW by Southwind SW. Not much indeed. Ironically, IBM claims a list of 2,876 software, but many listed are generic types or are programming languages.
This reality brings us to the second immutable constant in the UNIX universe: write your software since there are no applications available. And who writes SW for a living? Developers, of course! And developers pick a language to write their precious code. Consequently, we can read a lot about C, ADA, BASIC, PASCAL-2, or even FORTRAN. Nothing new under the sun. However, what surprises me is the early presence of tools targeting developers. Ironically, many of the problems are still unsolved these days. FORTRIX proposes to convert your heap of FORTRAN garbage and data into C. Better, please describe your code in English and let cEnglish convert it to C for you. SAFE C will find your most subtle bugs if you still want to write your own. SAFE C and its offspring are still searching while we still write our bugs… And since these tools didn’t solve any of these problems – we have the same tools today, simply exchange the names –, let’s switch to the developers’ good old religious wars: tabs or spaces? Not quite, but we can see emerging the open-minded approach to IDEs: use EMACS and shut up!
The third and final immutable constant in the UNIX universe is: there’s money to make in running UNIX. The ads show it clearly, as the vast majority comes from hardware vendors: IBM, Radio Shack/Tandy, Hewlett-Packard, Digital, Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments, Sperry, Pyramid Technology, Parallel, NCR, Charles River Data Systems, National Semiconductors, Intel, IBC, ELXSI, Data General, CYB, Convergent Technologies, Codata Systems, and of course AT&T/Teletype Corporation. That’s not less than 21 in a niche magazine!
Several of these vendors are obscure and squarely vanished in history’s graveyards. Others tried staying relevant by innovating (16 and 32-bit processors/bus systems, downsizing, bridging into the PC’s world, etc.). By the way, did you know that Radio Shack had a UNIX-based microcomputer running XENIX? I didn’t. Overall, the complete UNIX HW history unfolds afront of our eyes in these ads: big-irons fading out, the emergence of the minicomputers, but very early, the ultimate winner shows up in the ads: the PC.
Similarly, we can observe the mess introduced by the various UNIX standards, which undeniably contributed to our first key learning on UNIX (Software is UNIX’s Achille’s heel). Speaking of UNIX vendors, a fun fact, one of SCO’s ads is almost a blank page. A sign of their future way of doing business: sue them all, but above all, do not innovate. Well, we know today where this attitude leads you.