28 August 2009

RMS: 1, Symbolics: 0

Symbolics probably doesn't mean much to you, but it should. It was the main reason that Richard Stallman started the GNU project.

You can read the full story in Rebel Code - or, if by some mischance, you don't have the book to hand, in this speech by RMS. But to summarise an extremely complex tale, at first, Stallman fought Symbolics directly by matching their (proprietary) code with his own, which he gave to a rival; but later he realised that this was not really a sensible way of helping people to use and share software freely:

Once I stopped punishing Symbolics, I had to figure out what to do next. I had to make a free operating system, that was clear — the only way that people could work together and share was with a free operating system.

At first, I thought of making a Lisp-based system, but I realized that wouldn't be a good idea technically. To have something like the Lisp machine system, you needed special purpose microcode. That's what made it possible to run programs as fast as other computers would run their programs and still get the benefit of typechecking. Without that, you would be reduced to something like the Lisp compilers for other machines. The programs would be faster, but unstable. Now that's okay if you're running one program on a timesharing system — if one program crashes, that's not a disaster, that's something your program occasionally does. But that didn't make it good for writing the operating system in, so I rejected the idea of making a system like the Lisp machine.

I decided instead to make a Unix-like operating system that would have Lisp implementations to run as user programs. The kernel wouldn't be written in Lisp, but we'd have Lisp.

As well as provoking the creation of the free software movement, Symbolics has another claim to fame: it was the first registered domain name. Amazingly, only now is that name leaving its original owner:

Did you know the first .com domain name that was ever registered was Symbolics.com, on the 15th of March 1985 by the now defunct Massachusetts-based computer manufacturer Symbolics?

While the first that was created in January of that same year was Nordu.net (used to serve as the identifier of the first root server, nic.nordu.net), symbolics.com was the first domain name to actually be registered through the appropriate DNS process a few months later. This was of course long before there was a WWW, but you already had ‘the Internet’. In fact, the first TCP/IP-based wide-area network had already been operational for two years when nordu.net was created, right around the time the United States’ National Science Foundation (NSF) commissioned the construction of the legendary NSFNET, a university 56 kilobit/second network backbone. Only six companies thought it’d be a good idea to reserve the domain name on the root servers in 1985 (the others were bbn.com, think.com, mcc.com, dec.com and northrop.com). But Symbolics was first to make the move.

Remarkably, Symbolics.com hasn’t changed ownership once during the nearly 25 years that followed its initial registration. Marking an end to that era, domain name investment company XF.com Investments has just purchased the domain name for an undisclosed sum.

It's pretty extraordinary how all these trailblazing events were tied up together back then; pretty strange, too, how distant they all seem. And, of course, good for the world that ultimately it was RMS that won.

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Anonymous said...

Nowadays, many babble about RMS being not so great, being sexist, yadda, yadda...

It's better to fancy an image of a younger RMS with teen-like energy, vowing to right things and keep the good ol' American thinking about freedom of ideas -- and discovering this is indeed fragile and has to be protected.

Compare this to a younger Bill Gates with his manifesto full of... well, he was angry because people were taking his cheese.

It bothers me that people without understanding of these groundworks get to command and decide about IT, often purchasing M$ "solutions" to my abysmal dismay.

Glyn Moody said...

Yes, I agree that keeping things in perspective historically is useful.

Arron 'finux' Finnon said...

I've been (mis)fortunate, to swap emails with RMS.

It was a big learning experience for me, whilst i was passionate and enthusiastic about being involved in the whole FOSS community, and being a big Linux fan too, i looked at RMS with much respect and gratitude for all he had done.

However being ripped limb from limb and having my love for free software questioned because i was part of a Linux User group and not a GNU/Linux User group, by basically one of my hero's was earth shattering.

It seems such a shame because if this is what can be done, to a fan, supporter, and advocate of free software, then what happens when its someone on the swaying on the fence. BTW don't get him started on open source software either

Of course salvation is brought in the shape of eben moglen

Anyway its my 2 cents worth, and your being over charged at that

Glyn Moody said...

@finux: I think the important thing is not to take it personally. I've had similar done to me...RMS just can't turn it off, and is programmed to come out with this stuff. It's unfortunate, if understandable.

Anonymous said...

Another perspective from Dan Weinreb

"Richard Stallman has been telling a story about the origins of the Lisp machine companies, and the effects on the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Lab, for many years. He has published it in a book, and in a widely-referenced paper. His account is highly biased, and in many places just plain wrong. Here’s my own perspective on what really happened."


Glyn Moody said...