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June 20, 2016

Plan 9 is Nein

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am


Several years ago, I wrote about Plan 9, the operating system designed by Bell Labs to succeed Unix. Just as it happened in the movie, Plan 9 isn’t going to succeed.

That’s too bad, because I admired what Plan 9 was trying to do: To add some sense to the original notion of Unix, which is that everything in the computer is a file.

The other day I was thinking about computer operating systems and how everything today is pretty much stuck on the “desktop” metaphor. In fact, the “desktop” isn’t really a desktop at all; it’s simply a graphical interface. Any semblance to a physical desktop is gone, though in the early days some of the first graphical operating systems used more of the desktop metaphor on the screen.

Plan 9 was one of many attempts to create a new operating system that broke away from the old desktop. When I looked at the Plan 9 site, I found that the last “new” version of the operating system was introduced back in 2002. That makes Plan 9 pretty much vetusware as far as modern computers are concerned.

Of the many reasons Plan 9 failed, the biggest is a lack of end user software. You can’t get users to adopt a new OS unless they’re supplied with a ton of software.

When IBM introduced OS/2 to replace DOS, it lacked software. OS/2 was a great OS and had lots of power. But people ran DOS programs, so the few who actually used OS/2 simply ran the DOS shell and that was it.

Microsoft really pushed Windows hard back in the 1980s and early 1990s. They took a gamble when they converted Word and Excel to run only on Windows. In fact, I’m sure that WordPerfect and Lotus were eager to soak up the user base, but Microsoft’s persistence won the day. It wasn’t easy.

Mac users had no choice to adopt OS X as it came on all new Macintoshes. That’s an advantage of owning both the operating system and the hardware company.

I don’t think anyone is looking for a new OS. The great pushback to the “Get Windows 10” program demonstrates that users are content with their current PC configuration. Even a minority of Mac users don’t update to the latest version of OS X when it comes out. Without motivation to change the universal OS paradigm, change isn’t going to happen.

In the bigger picture, we’re stuck with the current desktop/filesystem metaphor. Better ways to use a computer most likely exist, but I doubt that they’ll leave the labs where they’ve developed. That’s sad, because had Plan 9 succeeded, it could have really shaken up the desktop.


  1. Hmmm, it sounds like a lot of past stories I have heard, good idea, gets over taken by something else. There was the (sadly I can’t rember the name) “PC Anywhere” which this seems like good idea as at the time PC’s were a little isolated, however the web took it over. Most people (companys as well) go for the cheapest option (Windows & web) so I can’t see another systems taking off. Personally I would like the UNIX like experince of just logging on and splat all your programs and docs are there that is why Dropbox is so useful.

    Comment by glennp — June 20, 2016 @ 2:39 am

  2. Actually, you get that experience with the Exchange Server. At my part time job, when I log in at any terminal – Boom! – there are my files and my desktop and all that. My fear is that mankind is not so stuck with the current desktop metaphor that even if they did find the ultimate operating system, it would be rejected.

    I remain curious to see what the next Windows 10 looks like. It will be released after Microsoft kills its spyware “Get Windows 10” program. Whether people will kick themselves for upgrading or not remains to be seen.

    Comment by admin — June 20, 2016 @ 6:38 am

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