Unix and NT or Unix vs. NT?

Feelings continue to run deep in this ongoing controversy

The Sept. 10 session of the Software Forum/UniForum Unix Special Interest Group (SIG) offered attendees a rare opportunity to see and hear high-level representatives of Sun Microsystems and Microsoft debate the advantages and shortcomings of the Unix and Windows NT operating systems. The session was held at Amdahl Corp.'s headquarters building in Sunnyvale, CA, and attracted over 150 computer professionals. By a show of hands, the Unix users in attendance outnumbered the NT users by slightly more than two to one.

"Unix is an "ecosystem" rather than a product."

The two presenters were Eric Jaeger, senior technologist for Sun for the western region, and Chuck Dietrick, Microsoft's general manager for northern California. Each began with a brief overview of his position. Jaeger stressed Unix's openness, universality and interoperability, referring to it as an "ecosystem" rather than a product. He added that it is responsible for the existence of open systems, calling it the "universal glue" for computing. For his part, Dietrick stressed that NT has made great strides in becoming interoperable and multiplatform, predicting that it will become the number one network operating system. He called it the strategic product for Microsoft and added that the company is putting a tremendous amount of effort behind it. The audience demonstrated a palpable bias in favor of Unix, displaying a kind of playful hostility toward Dietrick, who managed to maintain his good humor throughout the evening (although it appeared to wear on him as the discussion progressed).

Jaeger and Dietrick covered a variety of topics during their presentations, which were structured by the Software Forum into a format reminiscent of the traditional televised Presidential debates: one side presented on a topic, and the other side rebutted. The subjects covered included scalability; standards; enterprise-centric computing; the Internet and the World Wide Web; and the true meaning of open systems. It was on this last topic that a lot of the heat was generated at the meeting. Dietrick was questioned about Windows' openness, specifically in regard to his company's apparent unwillingness to license its source code. He replied that this was a key differentiator and a key "strategic advantage" for Microsoft. He went on to say that the licensing of source code has resulted in the "fragmentation of Unix, with little real interoperability" gains. He also said, "I hope we never turn over the source code to Windows."

Needless to say, the Unix-centric audience reacted energetically to Dietrick's statements, producing some of the most interesting rhetoric of the evening. "Microsoft is the epitome of capitalism," remarked one audience member. "Face it," offered another, "Microsoft is Mike Tyson. He is in business to kill you; accept it or go home." A third entreated Jaeger to "stand up and fight for us," prompting him to remark that--unlike Microsoft--Sun is "not a marketing company."

Almost at the very end of the discussion, one attendee made the following observation, which effectively encapsulated the status of the marketplace and the feelings of many in it. "The scientific argument that Unix is better is worthless. Microsoft has dumped a set of appealing solutions on the market--users want and need solutions."

Software Forum is a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit organization dedicated to software professionals, with almost 1,000 members. Started in 1983, it informs and educates its members on all facets of the software industry. Software Forum sponsors 11 other SIGs, which meet once a month: Business Operations; Client/Server; International; Internet; Macintosh; Marketing; Mobile/Wireless; Multimedia; Networking; Visual Basic; and Windows. Call (415) 854-7219 for more information on the organization.

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