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Musing about standards (small follow-up) ...

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  • Musing about standards (small follow-up) ...

    Dear Biomch-L readers,

    The following note was received today from the Family Medicine and HSPNET-L
    lists; I am X-posting it because of the pertinence -- generally speaking --
    of its contents to our own 3-D Kine(ma)tics Standardization debate, even
    though the underlying issue itself is rather remote from our interests.

    Regards -- hjw.

    - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - = -

    From: 26-MAY-1992 09:18:39.34
    Sender: Hospital Computer Network Discussion Group and Data Base

    Comments: Resent-From: Donald Parsons MD
    Comments: Originally-From: (Dick St.Peters)

    Probably of interest to all interested in whether to make their network
    UNIX with X-windows or MSDOS -- Don

    ----------------------------Original message----------------------------

    A couple of weeks ago Dr. Faughnan asked, and I finally have time to reply:

    > >The technical world has passed that hurdle. A workstation comes with
    > >networking built in - heterogeneous multi-vendor networking. But we
    > >are still struggling mightily about standards. Not that we don't have
    > >them - we have lots of them, several for most any imaginable interface :-)

    > Which of these nascent standards do you think would be worth looking into?
    > Can you recommend any clear writing on the topic?

    These are tough ones. It's not hard to find clear writing, but it is
    very hard to find unbiased writing. Getting the technical community
    to agree on standards is often like trying to get Catholics, Jews, and
    Muslims to agree on a common theology. Anybody who has looked closely
    enough at a standard to write clearly about it has most likely done so
    because he or she has a stake in the outcome.

    The good news is that the outcomes of most of these battles matter
    little to most end users. However, they can be virtually life or
    death struggles for vendors, especially small ones dependent on the
    success of some innovation or too small to absorb the costs of
    retooling when a standards decision goes against them.

    With the caveat that I have my own biases - so consider yourselves
    warned - let me write a bit about a standard that I think does matter
    to the end user. It's POSIX, from the IEEE Portable Operating System
    for Computer Environments Committee.

    The operating system interface is the single most important interface:
    when moving an application - or a user - from one computer to another,
    the iron rarely makes any difference. It's moving applications or
    people from one OS to another that creates all the headaches.

    One solution dating to about 1970 is to have a portable operating
    system, one that can run any machine. This was part of the original
    rationale for UNIX, and today you can get UNIX to run everything from
    Crays and mainframes to low-end PCs to digital telephone switchgear.

    Because POSIX builds on UNIX's two decades' experience in implementing
    a portable interface, POSIX is often called standardized UNIX. Now,
    I'm a UNIX advocate, and the thought of being able to say that UNIX
    won the OS wars is very appealing. In the technical community, the
    big OS war has been between VMS and UNIX, and being argumentative by
    nature, I've never hesitated to wade in for a good fight. That war is
    especially fun for me, since I'm one of the few people with extensive
    experience with both operating systems.

    But on a list like this, I have to behave more responsibly and admit
    that POSIX doesn't mean UNIX won. In fact, it doesn't even matter
    whether the OS is portable or not. (You won't tell my technical
    friends I said that, will you?) Only the interfaces (human and
    programming) to the OS need be portable.

    The current POSIX standard is a first step in standardizing the
    interface between applications and the OS - the programming interface.
    A number of operating systems that are very definitely not UNIX comply
    with the current POSIX standard, or will soon. Most vendors with
    non-UNIX operating systems have signed up to have their OS's track
    future POSIX standards.

    Part of the reason is that POSIX is a minimal standard. It does not
    require that an existing interface be removed or changed, only that a
    POSIX compliant one be added. This is a key point. While I don't
    overflow with sympathy for vendors who, in my view, failed to see the
    UNIX light after two decades of opportunity, leaving their customers
    high and dry would be quite another matter. A lot of my fellow UNIX
    bigots fail to understand this.

    The longer term intent of POSIX is to move the industry toward
    standardizing as much as possible of the OS interface, at a pace slow
    enough to minimize disruption. Because almost all the research that
    has been done on portable OS interfaces has been within the UNIX
    framework, POSIX is certain to continue gradual adoption of a
    standardized UNIX programming interface.

    Recently, it looked like a new OS war was shaping up, pitting Windows
    NT vs. POSIX-compliant OS's (mostly UNIX implementations). However,
    battle, in that context at least, was temporarily avoided when
    Microsoft agreed to make NT conform to the current POSIX, because the
    world's largest buyer of computers, the US government, essentially
    absorbed POSIX into the latest FIPS (Federal Information Processing

    Microsoft is non-committal about whether they will comply with coming
    POSIX standards though. My opinion - remember, I'm biased - is that
    they face a dilemma. If they endorse POSIX, then they become just
    another player, another entry in the race to see who's implementation
    of POSIX is best. Effectively, NT becomes just another UNIX. If they
    do not endorse NT, then they're betting on being able to set a de
    facto standard, a replay of the DOS scene, that can stand up to POSIX.

    My biased opinion is that they can't do another DOS. Too much of the
    PC market is large companies for whom portable software is becoming
    virtually a Holy Grail. I think a lot of software vendors see it this
    way too, and that's why we're seeing so many PC applications appearing
    for UNIX - the vendors don't want to bet their future on a company
    with its own non-standard programming interface and its own non-
    standard window system (user interface).

    Which brings up the other significant standard, The X Window System,
    to give it its proper name, or just X. I won't say nearly so much
    about it, because I don't like it. However, it's a standard that's
    there, so I use it - and spend a lot of my time having to program
    around it's limitations.

    One thing I will say about X is that it gets too much credit from
    inexperienced people for things that are inherent in any halfway
    decent windowing system. Most of the things people ooh and aah about
    are things workstation windowing systems have been doing for a decade.

    Dick St.Peters, GE Corporate R&D, Schenectady, NY uunet!!stpeters