Leaving licensing and copyright issues out of this mental exercise, what
would we have now if it wasn't for Linux? Not what you'd WANT it to be,
although that can add to the discussion, but what WOULD it be?
I'm not asking as a proponent of Linux. If anything, I was dragged
kicking and screaming into the current day and have begrudgingly ceded
my server space to Linux.
But if not for Linux, would it be BSD? A System V variant? Or (the
horror) Windows NT?
I can make a firm "dunno" sound :-)
Some facts can come together to point away from a number of possibilities...
- If you look at the number of hobbyist "Unix homages" that emerged at around that time, it's clear that there was a sizable community of interested folk willing to build their own thing, and that weren't interested in Windows NT. (Nay, one should put that more strongly... That had their minds set on something NOT from Microsoft.) So I think we can cross Windows NT off the list.
- OS/2 should briefly come on the list. It was likable in many ways, if only IBM had actually supported it... But it suffers from something of the same problem as Windows NT; there were a lot of folk that were only slightly less despising of IBM at the time than of Microsoft.
- Hurd was imagined to be the next thing...
To borrow from my cookie file...
"Of course 5 years from now that will be different, but 5 years from
now everyone will be running free GNU on their 200 MIPS, 64M
SPARCstation-5." -- Andrew Tanenbaum, 1992.
"You'll be rid of most of us when BSD-detox or GNU comes out, which
should happen in the next few months (yeah, right)." -- Richard Tobin,
1992. [BSD did follow within a year]
"I am aware of the benefits of a micro kernel approach. However, the
fact remains that Linux is here, and GNU isn't --- and people have
been working on Hurd for a lot longer than Linus has been working on
Linux." -- Ted T'so, 1992.
Ted has been on this thread, and should be amused (and slightly disturbed!) that his old statements are being held here and there, ready to trot out :-).
In the absence of Linux, perhaps hackers would have flocked to Hurd, but there was enough going on that there was plenty of room for them to have done so anyways.
I'm not sure what to blame on whatever happened post-1992, though I'd put some on Microsoft Research having taken the wind out of Mach's sails by hiring off a bunch of the relevant folk. In order for Hurd to "make it," Mach has to "make it," too, and it looked like they were depending on CMU to be behind that. (I'm not sure I'm right about that; happy to hear a better story.)
Anyway, Hurd *might* have been a "next thing," and I don't think the popularity of Linux was enough to have completely taken wind out of its sails, given that there's the dozens of "Unix homages" out there.
- I'd like to imagine Plan 9 being an alternative, but it was "properly commercial" for a goodly long time (hence not amenable to attaching waves of hackers to it to add their favorite device drivers), and was never taken as a serious answer. Many of us had admired it from afar via the Dr Dobbs Journal issue (when was that? mid or late '90s?) but only from afar.
- FreeBSD is the single best answer I can throw up as a possibility, as it was the one actively targeting 80386 hardware. And that had the big risk of the AT&T lawsuit lurking over it, so had that gone in a different direction, then that is a branch sadly easily trimmed.
If we lop both Linux and FreeBSD off the list of possibilities, I don't imagine Windows NT or OS/2 bubble to the top, instead, a critical mass would have stood behind ... something else, I'd think. I don't know which to suggest.--
When confronted by a difficult problem, solve it by reducing it to the
question, "How would the Lone Ranger handle this?"