The unknown hackers
This slash-and-burn approach to the work on the new release spawned a series of articles in the respected
journal Dr Dobbs. Those articles may have been even more influential than the code. A generation of O.S.
developers -- including Torvalds, then a student in Finland -- studied and learned from them. On Aug. 25, 1991,
Torvalds posted a fateful note to a Usenet news group devoted to the experimental operating system Minix: "Hello
everybody out there using minix," he wrote. "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and
professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since April, and is starting to get
If this blithe note represented a serious threat to their work, it didn't register with the Jolitzes. The
articles in Dr Dobbs primed their audience for the release of 386BSD 0.1 on Bastille Day 1992. The tone of their
announcement forms an illustrative contrast with that of Torvalds:
"We are pleased to announce the official release of 386BSD Release 0.1, the second edition of the 386BSD
operating system created and developed by William and Lynne Jolitz and enhanced further with novel work and
contributions from the dedicated 386BSD User Community. Like its predecessor, 386BSD Release 0.0, Release 0.1
comprises an entire and complete UNIX-like operating system for the 80386/80486-based AT Personal
There were 250,000 downloads of 386BSD 0.1, Lynne remembers. "We had people showing up on our doorstep,"
Bill says. "It was a fun time," Lynne agrees. "We thought there would be maybe a few hundred downloads. So much
for the power of the press!" Work continued apace. The Jolitzes aimed high. "When you do a release, it takes
months and months to shape it up to make it usable," says Lynne, demonstrating a distinctly different approach
from the Linux mantra: Release early, release often.
Instead, in December 1993, there came 386BSD 1.0, a revised version with new internal interfaces, allowing
the individual components of the operating system to talk to each other more cleanly and efficiently. But
somehow, in the 18 months between 0.1 and 1.0, the project lost its momentum. Version 1.0 was widely criticized
for being too little, too late.
"The idea behind what we were after was a system that always had network access, that could detect faults
and repair itself on the fly," explains Bill, heaving a sigh. "Sometimes you get too far into the future," he
remarks. "You have to stop and wait to see the future catch up."
By the time 1.0 was released, the x86BSD user community had fragmented. Some developers had moved to the
more active and open NetBSD and FreeBSD teams. Others had jumped the fence to Linux. A lawsuit between Unix
copyright holder AT&T and University of California at Berkeley was also partly to blame. But the Jolitzes,
too, were criticized for their autocratic style. The strength of their convictions did not endear them to people
who wanted to do things differently.
In return, they say their intellectual heirs have largely missed the point. "The xBSDs don't have any
understanding of where we were heading," says Lynne. "They're looking to the past. We look to it as: Don't repeat
the mistakes of history. When you haven't been involved, you don't know that Bill Joy threw something in late one
night, or Dennis Ritchie wrote something up as an expedient. We take so much for granted, all the knowledge that
we've accumulated, that we forget how much we worked for it. Someone writes it up very simple and they've solved
it for us. We miss the rigor of solving it for ourselves."
"Yet we continually re-solve the same problems," Bill says. "Why something and why not another thing? It's
a difficult discipline. Ninety-nine out of 100 things may work, but only one may be the ultimate. Striving for
the ultimate best is part of the Berkeley experience."
Strive as they might, 386BSD lost its early lead over Linux, never to regain it. The Jolitzes ended as they
began: voices crying in the wilderness. Their great insight into the software that came before them was the
extent to which it was human and subjective and fallible, the partly accidental product of the conditions that
brought it into being. Their great flaw, perhaps, was to fail to realize that the same principle applied equally
to their own work.
Their code lives on in FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD, which many believe are technically superior to Linux.
FreeBSD is often called the Net's best-kept secret. It keeps Yahoo up and running and is at the heart of Apple's
Darwin operating system. The recent merger of Walnut Creek CD-ROM, the largest distributor of FreeBSD, with the
commercial BSDi O.S., should infuse the operating system with fresh life.
If the glory of being Torvalds evaded them, the Jolitzes certainly helped prepare the way. With their most
the Jolitzes aim with typical hubris to eliminate the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol)
bottleneck and move bits around the Internet at light speed. Whether or not they succeed, they could hardly have
chosen a more revealing name.
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About the writer
Rachel Chalmers is an Australian writer living in San Francisco.
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