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April 9, 2010

Plan 9 From Bell Labs

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

Yes, it’s named after one of the worst films of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space. But Plan 9 From Bell Labs isn’t a film, nor is it fiction, nor is it awful. Nope, it’s an operating system that shuns all current operating system paradigms.

Bell Labs are the same folks who created the Unix operating system back in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Unix has been the operating system to admire and ape for computers dating from that time. From text mode to graphics mode, you can find the roots of what you do on a computer today in Unix.

Heck, you might even be using a Unix operating system to read this post! That is, providing you’re not using Windows.

Then again, Windows has its roots in DOS, which has many Unix-like features. I always considered DOS to be a Unix wannabe.

Plan 9 also has Unix-like features, but it’s not Unix. Instead, Plan 9 takes the concept of “everything is a file” and takes it quite literally: In Plan 9, everything is a file. From the user to the printer to even processes running on the computer, everything is a file.

You also won’t find the typical GUI metaphors, such as the desktop, in Plan 9. Here is a Plan 9 screen shot, taken from the Plan 9 web site:

Plan 9 Screen Shot. Click the image to see more information

You can download an ISO version of Plan 9 from the Plan 9 web site. Use the ISO to burn a CD. Use that CD to start your computer, where you can either boot a live version of Plan 9 to play with, or you can install Plan 9 on a bootable partition on your PC’s hard drive.

Confession: I wasn’t able to get the boot CD to work on my PC. It could be that my PC has more advanced or specific hardware that the Plan 9 boot CD wasn’t able to detect, or I could just be a dweeb. Either way, I wasn’t able to play with Plan 9 this time around.

I do, however, remember playing with Plan 9 on an older PC. I found it deliciously different. The experience wasn’t frustrating, it was just that without that common desktop-icon-window interface, I was a bit lost as to how the thing worked.

There is a growing community of Plan 9 adopters. That’s always good news. In fact, had I the time, I’d love to become a part of the Plan 9 community. I think it would remind me of those enjoyable hobbyist days of computing back in the 1980s.


  1. I’m excited that there is a new OS to choose from other than the big two (Windows, and OS X). I’m also excited to see someone finally have the guts to break away from the pack by using a different GUI than everything else. Personally, I think its too late for a new OS to get as popular as windows, osx, and linux since they have been around for so long. That’s not to say that I won’t use it. I’m just predicting how the public will react.

    Comment by gamerguy473 — April 9, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

  2. You never know what can take off. It took a long time for Windows to gain steam. In fact, it was Microsoft discontinuing the DOS version of Office that really pushed Windows to the forefront as an operating system. You get some worthy app that runs on Plan 9 and it will take off.

    Comment by admin — April 9, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

  3. Dan- It is REALLY interesting to read the history of unix. You know that unix came out of the ashes of multix, it was basically a toy OS that Ken Thompson was working on. Multix was meant to be the “end all” of OS’s, like an internet of an OS that everyone would plug into. After AT&T left the multix project Thompson was just screwing around building a file system on a computer that was sitting around, and when he added a text editor and a shell it grew into an OS. He honestly thought he would get fired for making that OS. The name unix was coined by Doug McIllroy as a pun on eunochs, sort of a castrated multix. I strongly recommend you read the Ken Thompson interview in the book “Coders at Work”

    Comment by BradC — April 15, 2010 @ 6:09 am

  4. Thanks for the tip. I’ve read lots of stuff about the history of Unix and find it fascinating. It’s amazing how many accidental successes there are in the computer industry. It also makes me curious about how many accidents there are today that are being squelched because of our greed-and-profit corporate structure.

    Comment by admin — April 15, 2010 @ 9:15 am

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