|Company / developer||Microport|
|Source model||Closed source|
|Kernel type||Monolithic kernel|
Microport (1985–2002) created the first version of AT&T UNIX System V for the IBM 286 and 386 Personal Computers, as well as IBM's PS/2 systems. Together, these IBM families formed the backbone of what is now known as the Intel x86 architecture.
By taking a new (at the time) approach, they were able to dramatically reduce development costs, and consequently, the price charged for UNIX.
At the Free Software Foundation (FSF)'s request, Microport donated a complete 386 development system to the Richard Stallman-led group. This was done for the explicit purpose of enabling the FSF to port its GNU C compiler (gcc) and associated utilities, onto the x86 architecture. GCC was, and still is, one of the largest free software projects available, permitting both the BSD and Linux programmers to develop those operating systems in the 1990s.
Previously, if one wanted the power of UNIX, one was limited to either expensive minicomputers, or the less sophisticated (and still expensive) XENIX or other UNIX derivatives. None of these solutions was intended to make UNIX affordable to the average person, focusing instead on the larger (and more profitable) OEM and VAR commercial deals. Microport's System V implementation was designed for the low-cost market, originally targeting the hobbyist, while capturing the attention of the OEMs and VARs.
Unfortunately for the hobbyists, Microport later moved away from the original roots of the individual hobbyist, turning instead towards selling to OEMs and VARs; gradually raising the price of the software until it was no longer easily affordable to the average person (although it was always cheaper than SCO's XENIX).
Nonetheless, others saw what Microport had done, and this left the market open for other low-cost UNIX technology to follow, including Linux and BSD for the PC's in the 90's, among others.
In 1983, AT&T announced UNIX System V at the West Coast Computer Fair in Anaheim, California. In an effort to promote System V, AT&T created their "Microports" program, with each of the major CPU manufacturers at that time (Intel, Motorola, Zilog, and others). Through this program, AT&T paid each of the processor manufacturers to port System V onto a standard hardware "reference" platform for each companies' flagship CPU (for Intel, this was called the Tahoe 80286-based platform, and later, the Tahoe 386-based reference platform).
By providing this software with the reference hardware, computer manufacturers could easily put UNIX onto their new systems, with a substantial reduction in cost. Putting UNIX onto new hardware is called a "porting" effort, or a "port". Hence, the name "Microports".
Typically, each UNIX port back then could easily involve a dozen or more software developers, take a couple of years, and cost over a million dollars. However once this port was available for the hardware reference platform, it was immediately available for any similar hardware design. The end result was a great reduction in the development cost and time. Typically only a few device drivers had to be modified to support any new computer based on the reference platform. The rest of the utilities (most notably the compiler), the libraries and application software could immediately run without any modification. Such a new UNIX "port" typically required only a few developers, took only a few months, and usually cost well under $100,000 dollars to develop. Time to market was drastically reduced, as well as the development costs.
Intel subcontracted out their microports program to Digital Research (DRI). DRI hired Chuck Hickey to lead this effort. Unfortunately, DRI was also in negotiations with AT&T to gain exclusive control over marketing UNIX on microcomputers, and when those discussion fell through DRI cut its funding and dissolved Hickey's team before the work could be completed. Intel later selected Interactive Systems Corporation to finish up the 286 port.
Microport's history can be divided into three distinct phases:
- The early days (before bankruptcy).
- After their bankruptcy, but before Novell sold the rights for the UNIX market to SCO.
- After SCO took over ownership of UNIX sales.
The early days: (September 1985 to February 1989)
These days were characterized by an early hacker-driven environment, which gradually gave way to a more corporate environment (dropping its early emphasis on the individual hacker) and catered more towards large OEM and VAR deals. Unfortunately it was a period plagued by severe financial mismanagement which ultimately sank the company.
Chuck Hickey realized that one could take the AT&T port for the Intel platform and easily modify it for the IBM 286 PC, bringing the first real AT&T advanced System V UNIX technology to the PC. All with minimal effort and cost, allowing the software could be sold at a subsequent discount. Since marketing was Hickey's strength, he assembled a small team of developers in September 1985, who were willing to work for stock and/or royalties, and little to no pay as there was no financial backer at that time.
Microport's main competitor was the Santa Cruz Operation, who sold their base XENIX Operating System for about $500 (with the complete system being over $1500 at the time). Microport demonstrated their product at the COMDEX tradeshow in November 1985, for an introductory price of $99. Furthermore, it had the standard advanced System V technology. It took SCO several years to catch up with the System VR3 technology that Microport brought out in the mid 1980s.
To put the development effort in perspective, almost no money was involved in the initial 286 UNIX port. There was a team of four developers, working for almost no pay, and using office space borrowed from a software consulting company called "Santa Cruz Computer".
Starting in September, this team finished up the first release of the software in record time, and was able to demo the software in NCR's booth at Comdex in November 1985. It was this demo, and announcement, which paved the way for other business opportunities. And it caught the eyes of IBM, SCO, and Microsoft.
NCR was the first customer of Microport, giving them a contract worth $100,000. With this money, Microport was able to complete the final version of System V for the 286, and begin work on the System V port to the 386 in September 1986.
Microport immediately ran into a key problem. Namely, providing application software for the Operating System. All large corporations required applications, not just the Operating System. Unfortunately, the application companies (like Oracle) all typically required $100,000 to port and certify their software on a new Operating System.
Microport had neither the time, nor the money, to interest the application companies, even if it had the most advanced OS technology.
Consequently, Microport announced that it was going to enable compatibility with any Xenix application (i.e. Xenix binary compatibility), allowing all of the applications which ran on SCO/Microsoft Xenix to also run on AT&T UNIX. AT&T had actually contracted with Microport to provide an estimate of what it would take to do this back in October 1985.
In a sadly amusing precursor of the later, famous SCO lawsuit against IBM over Linux, SCO and Paul Allen of Microsoft threatened to sue Microport if they "ever so much as demo'd Xenix binary compatibility". SCO and Microsoft of course had no basis for such a lawsuit, but that was irrelevant. Microport had no cash to defend against such an action, and consequently dropped the development efforts for Xenix binary compatibility.
Out-Maneuvering SCO and Microsoft
Desperate for application software, Microport managed to pull an end-run around the SCO/Microsoft effort to sink them.
Microport discovered that AT&T had already spent millions of dollars certifying dozens of major application software packages on AT&T's 6300+ Personal Computer. This was AT&T's version of the IBM PC, and of course it ran standard AT&T System V UNIX. Because Microport had adhered to the System V standard, their Operating System was immediately compatible with all of the applications for the 6300+. Normally in the UNIX industry, binary compatibility was a novel concept; pretty much unheard of. This was a situation which showed the power of it. It's not clear that AT&T ever sold any of the applications that they had certified. But it is clear that Microport sold a substantial amount.
With the applications now in order, the way was now clear for Microport to fully compete against SCO for all business customers.
The 386 version of System V
In 1986, Microport became the first company to put System V UNIX on the newly released 386 IBM PC. This was done using an early release of System V which Intel used for their 386 Tahoe platform, again done by Interactive Systems Corporation (ISC).
Even though ISC had a huge lead in doing this port, Microport took this software and adapted it from the Tahoe platform to the 386 PC. They were the first one to deliver it to Intel, beating ISC by three weeks. This product later moved from its beta version to production status when AT&T announced the full availability of SVR3 (System V, Release 3) the next year. During August 1986, Microport also established its international division. Two months later, Microport received an investment from Televideo, of over one million dollars, in exchange for 51% of the company stock.
From 1986 to 1988 Televideo continued to increase its investment in the company. As a subsidiary of a public corporation and with a Big-8 Accounting Firm veteran as CFO, accounting was not the problem. What happened was that sales started to decline as Interactive Systems, Bell Technologies, Everex and others started selling their version of the AT&T 386 port, eroding Microport's unique position and making continued inflow of investment capital unlikely. Realizing that survival of the company was now dependent upon full acquisition of the company by Televideo or another company, Hickey stepped down as CEO though remained on the board, putting CFO Greg Chavez in charge.
Typically in the high-tech business, a CFO taking over is a bad sign for a startup, and this was no exception. Greg Chavez attempted to sell the company, but without success. By early 1989, Microport had run up debts of about $1,000,000. In the spring of that year, Chavis left and Televideo resigned from the board of directors, leaving Hickey with some difficult choices. Televideo to their credit did provide temporary housing for the company during this period and put Hickey in contact with a Chapter 11 specialist, should he decide to go that route. The company entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the Court approved the specialist selected to run the company. Microport continued to operate, but it gradually reduced its staff.
It continued to operate under Chapter 11 bankruptcy provisions for nearly two years.
The second phase: 1990 - 1995
In May 1990, Microport emerged from bankruptcy after being purchased by Abraxas software, with Sherman "Spike" Kasper as President. Kasper was arguably the best president during the history of the company, and kept the business on a solid track during his tenure.
During this time, it joined Unix International, and participated in the development of the first multiprocessor SVR4, along with Unisys, Intel and Sequent Computer Systems. Microport was among the first to compile SVR4 for the Pentium processor, and was credited with having the best serial device driver among all of the UNIX vendors.
In 1992, Novell bought the rights to Unix, which immediately changed the industry. Microport dropped its own UNIX and became a reseller of UnixWare (SVR4.2). Other developers either did the same or got out of the business. Microport still did select development, for certain new drivers, improving others and it "wrote the platform support layer for SMP servers in the AST Manhattan and the Altos/Acer Frame 5000". The company still closed large OEM deals, until SCO bought the rights to UnixWare from Novell in December 1995.
Suddenly, Microport was reduced to being a reseller of its old nemesis, SCO.
One can say that the SCO deal marked the beginning of the end of UNIX, for by 1995 Linux and BSD were significantly rising in popularity, and SCO never perceived them as a threat until much later. Despite a couple of opportunities, Microport's CEO's never took the FSF or Open Source movement seriously, in spite of the fact that some of its original engineering staff had assisted the FSF in the early days.
The final phase: 1996—2002
Mike Grinder, one of the few employees left from the first phase of Microport, took over as head of Microport during this phase.