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The Man Behind the Curtain – Remembering Dennis Ritchie

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The technology world is still buzzing with the recent passing of Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, the rightful buzz overshadowed the passing of Dennis Ritchie on October 12, 2011. Ritchie’s contributions to the field of software engineering are arguably just as important as the well known innovation by Jobs.

Dennis Ritchie was a principal developer of the C programming language while at Bell Labs in the 1970’s and a primary developer of the UNIX operating system. C, one of the most prolific programming languages of all time, influenced other popular languages including the well renowned C++ language. Many other languages adapted aspects of C including but not limited to Objective-C, C#, and Java. Many programs including Windows are written in C and its sister languages showing Ritchie’s long lasting contributions.

Ritchie’s development of the UNIX operating system was another one of his key contributions. UNIX is the basis for systems more familiar to the public including Linux and OS X. UNIX was originally free-licensed and was a leader in the open source movement.

Despite not being an expert in the field of software development, I have used Dennis Ritchie’s innovation many times. He has served as the man behind the curtain, his contributions are also thought of in the same way. I want to question the Skepchick community, whose contributions are more important, Steve Jobs’ or Dennis Ritchie’s? Are these two innovators too different to compare?

I also want to thank Jonathan Brockman for creating the figure for this post.

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14 Comments

  1. I think Ritchie is far more worthy of remembrance. He was instrumental in shaping computer science as it exists today, and as far as I know, was just all around a nice fellow.

    Steve Jobs was something of a misanthropist, and apparently had a personality transplant between leaving and returning to Apple. Certainly he went from supporting openness and standard compliance to business practices that have made Microsoft look nigh heroic.

    What matters more, shiny gadgets, or the foundation upon which most computer software is based today? I think the answer is clear.

  2. “Ritchie’s contributions to the field of software engineering are arguably just as important as the well known innovation by Jobs.”

    That’s like saying a guy with a shovel is almost as good at removing snow as a guy with a teaspoon. Ritchie’s contribution was INARGUABLY more important than Jobs’s, and pretending otherwise is insulting everyone’s intelligence.

  3. I’ll argue they were equally important.

    Jobs and Ritchie are both worthy of praise for things they accomplished. Ritchie built a solid foundation that virtually all current computer systems are built on (Windows is now techinically more of a VMS derivative), but it was the foundation for these system. Jobs, after his expulsion from Apple, built many things on top of this foundation and then took it to the world.

    Jobs might not exist without Ritchie but Ritchie’s UNIX would still be locked away in server rooms and ivory towers without Jobs. Mac OS X is the largest install base of UNIX in the world.

    As I said, Ritchie provided a hugely important foundation, but Jobs was the one that made the house built on it livable. You can have the best foundation in the world, but if all the light switches are 8 feet off the ground you’re going to be pissed and consider that house unlivable, Jobs attempted to show that design on top of the foundation was just as important. So far he has mainly succeeded just at Apple and with consumers. Few other companies put as much into making their whole systems usable as Apple does.

    Additionally, despite what the article says, UNIX was not developed as an open source system. It was developed before the concepts of Free/Open Source was really around. And it was developed at Bell Labs, the Bell companies were NOT the bastions of openness you might be thinking. They were perfectly willing to ship source code but it was still locked under copyright and licensed. Since this was the very (very!) early days of computing the law wasn’t sure how to treat all this new fangled stuff. Heck, they still don’t.

    UNIX System Labs, the part of Bell Labs responsible for Ritchie’s UNIX, tied up rights to UNIX in courts, most specifically in their suit against UC Berkeley. This action set back BSD UNIX development for years as no one wanted to touch it while licensing was unclear.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USL_v._BSDi

    And Apple isn’t quite the boogie man of open source software. Not only did they build their latest generations of software on top of BSD UNIX (both iPhone and Mac are built on it), they also used the KHTML project as a starting point for their WebKit browser engine, which they’ve continued to develop as Open Source software. It has 30% of desktop market, being the core of both Safari and Google’s Chrome, but it also has close to 100% of the mobile smartphone browser market since Android, iOS and Blackberry have adopted it as their core web rendering engine.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webkit

    Ritchie’s contributions to computer science were way greater, but Jobs contributions brought Ritchie’s contributions to everybody.

    • So, which one should I be P-O’d at that when my MacBookPro (OS X.5with a time capsule) died, the new iMac (OS X.7) would not recognize or connect to the time capsule??

      Apple is supposed to be user-friendly, but if their own back-up system does not really back-up a computer, how user-friendly is that?

      I shelled out money for a wireless hard drive back-up, and it would not even work as a back-up?? How about including a fire-wire port so that it would at least act as an external drive?

    • “Jobs might not exist without Ritchie but Ritchie’s UNIX would still be locked away in server rooms and ivory towers without Jobs. Mac OS X is the largest install base of UNIX in the world.”

      Another one of the shitty “we wouldn’t have X without Apple”.

      Linux has been around for soon 20 years too you know, and is growing in popularity quite on its own.

      Not to mention AmigaOS which was parallel to MacOS and Windows back in the days. They were early to introduce functioning multitasking. An key feature of all modern OSes.

  4. Until Apple bought NeXT and turned that into OS X, Apple did not use UNIX in it’s machines. The Lisa and Mac were done in Pascal, not C. Apple didn’t start using C for it’s own software until 1988. So I’d say Jobs did indeed produce shiny things without Ritchie.

    The original ARPANET had no unix machines on it nor was it written in C. Not sure why you think the Internet that grew out of that required either of those things to progress. UNIX leveraged them faster than other operating systems, but they were not built on the foundation of UNIX at the time.

  5. I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve been complaining to everyone who (after a minute or so) won’t listen to my rants about the lack of coverage of Ritchie’s death. In my infrequent magnanimous moments I’m prepared to forgive the mainstream media to some extent: Jobs is by far the easier sell for news stories.

    But I suspect that what Richie would have mourned is the lost opportunity to teach people some computer science history and practice. Shiny shit doesn’t just spring out of nowhere. Good ideas in science and engineering persist because they are good ideas, tested against real stuff. Trends in interfaces come and go, but they all depend on science and engineering.

    I’m not suggesting that innovative interfaces can’t change the face of computing. I’m suggesting they can’t do so without computer scientists pushing boundaries and software engineers trying those ideas out.

    Richie was a bit of both and opened doors to systems and application developers that we take for granted these days. I think that when your work is taken for granted, it is automatically more important than work that needs to be constantly marketed.

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