A Tribute to a Forgotten Fallen Tech Hero
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Last week, the tech press was flooded with tributes to the late Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) founder and CEO Steve Jobs, who passed a away a year ago on Friday, with much hand-wringing over Apple's future.
About a week later, Dennis Ritchie died. While programmers and techies all over the world payed their respects on social networking services, the response from the business and tech world was much more subdued, given that Ritchie made much of the successes of the tech world, including Apple's.
While at Bell Labs, now part of Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ritchie worked on two major innovations that are still widely used in the computer world, the Unix operating system and the C programming language.
The Unix operating system aimed for simplicity, letting programmers combine lots of smaller programs into big projects, a kind of software LEGO. In the early '70s, it was a revelation for many computer professionals.
When the system was re-implemented in C, a language designed by Ritchie, it was a minor revolution in the computer industry. C was a high-level language, which meant that the programmer didn't need to know everything about the computer itself to use it. Unix was the first time an operating system had been written in a high-level language. Writing it in C meant that it could run on computers other than the Digital Equipment Corporation's (now HP) PDP-7 and later PDP-11 to other computers. It was an attempt at a universal operating system.
Since AT&T, Bell Labs' parent company of the time, was under a consent decree, they couldn't market non-phone products, even though Unix was making a splash in the computer world, especially after a seminal paper was published in the prestigious computer science journal Communications of the ACM. Bell Labs could, however, give it away to universities for next to nothing.
Both C and Unix have become widely-used in the tech world. Both Apple's operating systems, Mac OS X and iOS, are descended from a version of Unix, BSD, that was developed at UC Berkeley, which was one of the universities that took advantage of Bell Labs' Unix giveaways to improve the system, adding advanced features like text editors and networking. Most of Apple's $108.25 billion in sales last year came from iPad and iPhone sales. Unix is also responsible for the company's $25.9 billion profit it posted last year.
Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) also relies heavily on Unix, though mainly on a free (as in speech, and beer) work-alike known as Linux. Its Android smartphone platform is a modified version of Linux, so no matter which side you're taking in the smartphone wars, the real winner is Unix. Google's servers run Linux, so millions of people around the world performing their search queries are using Unix every day as well. It's no accident that the company posted a profit last year of $9.7 billion and has a market cap of $246 billion.
Even if you avoid Google and Apple and stick with Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), you can't avoid Ritchie's innovations. Windows is written almost entirely in C, as are many applications such as Microsoft Office. Actually, many commercial programs are written in either C or C++.
Ritchie's achievements were possible because Bell Labs was committed to advancing the state of the art, even if it didn't necessarily result in innovations that could be directly commercialized by the phone company (when it was just the phone company in the U.S.).
Alcatel-Lucent has had a financially rocky recent past posting losses for three years since 2008 before becoming profitable in 2011 to the tune of $1.4 billion. Under Alcatel, Bell Labs is also focusing on research that can be more easily commercialized in telecommunications projects. We're unlikely to see major projects like the ones that came out of the heyday of Bell Labs again, such as lasers, information theory and transistors.
Although Ritchie won't get nearly as many articles paying tribute to him on the one-year anniversary of his death, it's important to remember the person whose shoulders Apple and everyone else stood on.
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