SCO's Battle Is Rooted In Unix's Fragmented History

The SCO Group's efforts to mine revenue from Linux is rooted in the tangled history of computer operating systems.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 8, 2003

3 Min Read

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- The SCO Group's attempts to squeeze a revenue stream out of Linux is rooted in the long and tangled history of computer operating systems.

Unix is among the oldest and most reliable operating systems. Developed in the late 1960s and early '70s at AT&T's Bell Laboratories, Unix was never seen as a cash cow for Ma Bell.

In fact, AT&T liberally licensed it to several companies and shared it with universities for educational purposes. Companies created their own flavors of AT&T's Unix, called System V, and rebranded them with names like IBM's AIX, Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX and Sun Microsystems' Solaris.

AT&T granted IBM a Unix license in 1985. Eight years later, Novell Inc. acquired AT&T's Unix property. In 1995, Novell sold the rights to the Santa Cruz Operation.

In 1996, IBM obtained more rights in an agreement-- now hotly contested--that included phrases like "irrevocable," "fully paid up" and "perpetual."

Caldera Inc., a mostly unsuccessful Linux distributor that would become today's SCO Group, bought the Santa Cruz Operation's Unix business in 2001. Caldera changed its name to the SCO Group last year and set up a business to protect its newly purchased intellectual property.

In 1991, Finnish college student Linus Torvalds created the basics of an operating system that worked and felt like Unix. He came up with the kernel, or core, and made it available to anyone who wanted it, on the condition that it remain open and free.

It was called Linux.

Until recently, Linux was of interest largely to hobbyists--the thousands of programmers who improved upon it and contributed their code to the good of the project. Then companies like IBM started kicking in code. Linux started to rival its proprietary Unix cousins.

SCO, in a $3 billion lawsuit against IBM, claims its Unix property seeped into Linux. IBM denies the claims and has filed a countersuit.

Darl McBride, SCO's CEO, claims Linux has hurt Unix.

"Because Linux is replicating Unix ... Linux plus fee equals Unix," he said. "It sort of begs the question of why don't you just run Unix?"

But there are other options.

Microsoft was developing a flavor of Unix called Xenix back in the early 1980s when it got a call from IBM, which was seeking an operating system for its newfangled personal computer line.

According to some accounts, Microsoft tried to offer Xenix, but IBM was nervous about the pending antitrust case and possible breakup of AT&T. So Microsoft bought another, non-Unix operating system called QDOS for $50,000 and eventually renamed it MS-DOS. (Microsoft would build its empire on MS-DOS, which it only fully abandoned for home PCs with the release of Windows XP in 2001).

A separate branch of Unix, developed at the University of California, Berkeley, also emerged, further fragmenting the lineage. AT&T had no control over this version, which explains why Apple Computer's Unix-based OS X is never mentioned by SCO.

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