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Unix and Adversarial Interoperability: The ‘One Weird Antitrust Trick’ That Defined Computing

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The Unix operating system was created at Bell Labs in 1969. Today, it rules the world. Both Android and iOS are flavors of Unix. So is MacOS. So is GNU/Linux in all its flavors, like Ubuntu and Debian. So is Chrome OS. Virtually every "smart" gadget you own is running some flavor of Unix, from the no-name programmable Christmas lights you put up in December to the smart light-bulb and smart-speaker in your living room.

Over the years, many companies have marketed versions of Unix: Apple and Microsoft, HP and IBM, Silicon Graphics and Digital. Some of the most popular Unixes that came from universities (like BSD, from UC Berkeley) and from hobbyists (the Linux kernel was created by a 22-year-old hobbyist named Linus Torvalds).

But there's one company that never marketed Unix: AT&T, the company that paid for Unix's development. They never got into the Unix business.

In 1949, Harry Truman's Department of Justice launched an antitrust complaint against AT&T, alleging that the company had engaged in anticompetitive conduct to secure a monopoly for its hardware division, Western Electric.

But when the US entered the Korean War, AT&T was able to secure a break by citing its centrality to the US military. With the Pentagon fighting to keep AT&T intact, the Eisenhower administration let AT&T off the hook: in 1956 the US dropped its lawsuit in exchange for a "consent decree," through which AT&T promised to get out of the general electronics business and to share its patents and technical documentation with existing and new competitors.

Despite the consent decree, AT&T continued to fund a large and rollicking research and development department, the Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) in New Jersey. BTL was home to some of computing history's most storied pioneers, including Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, the principal inventors of Unix, who basically created the project out of intellectual curiosity.

Thanks to the consent decree, AT&T couldn't do much with Unix, and so it remained an internal project until Ken Thompson gave a talk on his work at a 1973 Association for Computing Machinery conference. His paper stirred interest from academic and commercial computer science, and AT&T's lawyers decided that the consent decree meant that they couldn't start a new business based on Unix.

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