UNIX co-creator Ken Thompson is a… what user now?

Elder statesman of system software makes a shocking revelation

Last weekend, the SCALE conference came back from the pandemic with a bang: Ken Thompson as keynote speaker. In the Q&A at the end of his talk, Thompson made a surprising confession.

Bell Labs researcher Ken Thompson was one of the developers of MULTICS, the ancestor of and inspiration for UNIX. He also developed Space Travel in 1969, arguably one of the first video games, and then ported it from MULTICS to GECOS… and then to a spare PDP-7 that was knocking around the lab, in the process creating a set of development tools that he and the late Dennis Ritchie subsequently turned into an operating system they called UNIX.

He also co-designed and co-wrote Plan 9 from Bell Labs, the better-architected successor to Unix. Plan 9 failed to displace its much more primitive forebear, but it's still being developed today. He then went on to design Plan 9's CPU-independent successor, Inferno. Although Thompson is now 80 years old, he most recently worked at Google, where he co-developed Go… although his hiring caused problems: he refused to take the company's mandatory C proficiency test, on the feeble pretext that he designed the C language.

Living programmers don't get much more eminent than this. He is a genius, who devised and built tools that have deeply affected millions of people – including UTF-8 encoding, possibly the first implementation of regex regular expressions, and ed, which is, of course, the standard editor on UNIX. So it must have been something of a coup when the Southern California Linux Expo 20x bagged Thompson as a keynote speaker.

His talk is a little surprising in several ways, but all the same, it's very much worth watching. Thompson admitted to suffering badly from stage fright, and struggled with moving through his slides. All the same, we recommend his talk. It's about recorded music, and doesn't really touch on Unix at all. It does have a lot about early digital music encoding systems and formats, Wurlitzer jukeboxes, player pianos, and much more besides.

The real surprise is during the question-and-answer section at the end, though (at the 57¾ minute mark.) An audience member asked: "What's your operating system of choice today?"

Thompson replies:

I have for most of my life – because I was sort of born into it – run Apple. Now recently, meaning within the last five years, I've become more and more and more depressed… And what Apple is doing to something that should allow you to work is just atrocious… But they are taking a lot of space and time to do it, so it's okay. And I've come, within the last month or two, to say: even though I've invested a zillion years in Apple, I'm throwing it away, and I'm going to Linux. To Raspbian, in particular.

This Raspbian? The Reg FOSS desk can honestly say that we did not see that coming.

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We feel that we should note that Mr Thompson has a long and storied history of trolling the computer industry, which we have touched on before, notably his famous 1984 paper "Reflections on Trusting Trust" [PDF], in which he revealed, during his Turing Award lecture, that he had planted an essentially untraceable back door in the original C compiler… and it was still there. ®


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