Sadly, Dennis Ritchie passed away yesterday at age 70. Most people outside of the technology world (and likely even a lot of people new to it) are unaware of two major contributions made by Dennis that make what we have possible. Dennis was instrumental in the development of the C programming language, as well as the UNIX operating system. What does this mean? No UNIX means no iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or Mac. It meant that Sun, HP, Apollo, IBM and other UNIX-based workstations would never have come to pass. UNIX is the key motivator behind the design of Linux, which is a core technology running servers and websites, as well as the basis for Android. Ideas and thoughts from UNIX made the microkernel from CMU a reality, and it was the underlying technology for a more modern Windows operating system, Windows NT. C was the basis for C++ and Objective-C. In a somewhat ironic twist, a lot of C’s difficulties (or shortcomings to some) motivated the development of Java.
I had the pleasure of attending his keynote address at USENIX in Anaheim in 1990. It was fascinating to hear some of the stories about UNIX in its infancy, and to hear Dennis’s thoughts on where operating systems were going. He actually didn’t like the idea of threads, something reasonably new to mainstream computing. His thought was that we should just make processes lighter weight. Dennis also remarked that, if he were to change anything about UNIX, he would go back and change the “creat” function and add the missing “e”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet him in person during the conference.
Dennis and his contributions to technology today are important, and underly a lot of what we use today. He is one of the giants on whose shoulders many have stood. Without him, things would be very different.