I just realised that there are two anniversaries this year. Neither would be worth grabbing a bottle of champagne for but they are vaguely connected and it does give me a chance to reminisce about some neat, old technology.

I forget the exact dates of both events but they were fifteen and ten years ago. Back in 1994 I first installed Linux on my 386SX-based PC. At this point in time my exposure to Unix had been only on “big” computers, the Sun (Solaris) and HP (HP-UX) machines in the Universities labs. It seemed incredible that you could even get something approaching a full version of Unix running on my little home computer.

I guess it would seem pretty primitive if I were to look at it now. I seem to recall that they’d only just got X working on it and it didn’t work at all on my 386. But still, it ran and I could log in multiple times using virtual terminals. It even multi-tasked, something that Windows 3.1, the operating system in the other partition, couldn’t really do with any reliability. Despite the limitations, it was good enough to help me finish my final year project without having to make the half hour, hilly walk to the labs every day.

Five years after that I got my first mobile (cell) phone. It was an Ericsson flip phone, long before they teamed up with Sony. It was pretty small (even by modern standards) but they had achieved this by providing only a single line LCD display and stubby aerial that caught on the inside of your pocket when you pulled it out when receiving a call. Still, this was better than the Motorolas of the time which often allowed you to remove the battery when you intended to flip them open to answer a call.

At this point mobile phones were becoming popular but were far from ubiquitous. My Ericsson was tied to one2one, a network that no longer exists as a seperate entity (it’s now part of T-Mobile). Friends told me that this was a bad idea as they had poor coverage but I never really had a problem. When I did eventually move it was when they declared that I was on an “illegal” tariff and doubled my monthly fees. I’d called because I wanted to upgrade, to spend more money with them, but this was not what I’d had in mind!

As an aside, I continue to be fascinated by the farce that is the US cell phone industry. Ten years ago UK networks talked about coverage and dropped calls but it’s pretty much been a non-issue for a while now ((Orange have just started advertising about their 3G coverage, but this the first I’ve seen for a long time. I’m not even sure if it’s generally accepted that there’s a reception problem with the other carriers. I’ve been on most of the networks over the years and I’ve not seen dramatic differences.)). Both still seem to be big problems (or selling points) in the States and yet Americans pay more than almost anywhere else for their service. The bizarre thing is that many of the most tech-savvy people actually defend the telcos.

But back to the main narrative.

It’s kind of odd to think that we’ve now pretty much come full circle. What was considered “big” in 1994, Unix, has now filtered down to the decedents of that Ericsson mobile phone. Pretty much all of the “cool” phones released in the last few years have a Unix core, the iPhone, the various Android handsets, the Pré.

I’m not sure that ten or fifteen years ago I would have predicted that you would be able to get Unix on a phone, but Moore’s Law was well known so it wouldn’t have been an outlandish idea. But what comes next? Unix (and Linux especially) already span the whole range from tiny, embedded systems right through to super computers.

Where do we go from here?