UNIX: Its Merits Are Recognized 20 Years Later

by William J. Flannery, Jr.

About 20 years ago, UNIX was born in the AT&T laboratory. UNIX was originally developed as programming language. Since then, UNIX has become significantly more popular. UNIX is often described as the universal operating system because of its ability to run on a variety of vendors' hardware platforms. Although UNIX has obvious advantages for the legal profession and law firms, it has received little attention in the legal technology arena.

One of the major problems that law firms have faced over the past 20 years has been the lack of graceful migration. Graceful migration can be defined as the ability to make a systems conversion. The conversion could be from older to newer, more powerful technology or from one vendors' hardware to another's. These conversions have been costly and frustrating for law firms. The ability to migrate applications and data to newer, more powerful work stations should increase the appeal of UNIX to the legal technology community. Another major benefit is the multitasking and multiuser capability. This allows multiple users to perform different applications, including running MS-DOS under the UNIX operating system umbrella. Many law firms need to be able to run multiple applications, such as accounting, while other applications, such as word processing, are performed. The multiuser capability enhances the firm's investment in work stations for those applications that do not require a dedicated work station.

If the benefits are so obvious, why hasn't UNIX made inroads at law firms? It is primarily because of a lack of applications available from the software vendors and, secondarily, because UNIX opportunities for the computer industry are better elsewhere. Sun Microsystems, Appollo, AT&T, Hewlett Packard and IBM's UNIX offerings have experienced phenomenal growth. Projections in the July 3 issue of Computer Reseller News estimate that revenue growth from 1989 to 1995 will rise from $1.81 billion to $3.58 billion. These vendors are devoting resources to the scientific and engineering work station markets.

Varbusiness, an industry publication, reports in its June issue that worldwide UNIX licenses will double from 1.7 million to 3.6 million between now and 1992. During that time, the number of UNIX users will grow from 10 million to 20 million. Many of these projections do not take into consideration opportunities in the legal community. Growth projections are based, in part, on overall reduction in price and enhancements in performance. The Feb. 27 issue of Computerworld reports that Data General has announced a 17 million instructions per second work station for $7,450.00. This is about three to five times faster than typical personal computers at a competitive price.

Increased Computer Power

Sun Microsystems predicts that 1,000 MIP work stations will be available before the year 2000. These advances, couple with chip technology, such as reduced instruction set computers, will bring computing power equal to the mainframe computer to the desktops of end users.

For the lawyer this means that as law libraries, client files, opinion and memorandum files are put on CD-ROM, the search capability will be significantly enhanced. With this newer technology, obstacles to conversion of information will be reduced, and graceful migration using UNIX as the basic operating system will be possible. One obstacle to UNIX growth recently was removed when IBM announced its version of UNIX called AIX. This is significant for several reasons. First, IBM's position in the market will increase the focus on UNIX, and more focus means more applications. Second, the fact that IBM AIX is lining up against the AT&T version of UNIX will ultimately lead to standardization.

Several industry groups have been formed to attempt to cause the merger of the various UNIX versions. The need is for UNIX to be compatible at the binary level (total data interchangeability between various systems). X/OPEN Ltd., UNIX International and OSF (Open System Foundation) have similar needs, and a common universal UNIX will probably emerge over the next two or three years. With marketing and applications increasing, UNIX will break out of the laboratory and scientific environment into the commercial marketplace. Another significant development is the growing use of UNIX within the federal government. A majority of requests for proposals and government bids are specifying UNIX as the desired operating system to create standardization among federal agencies. Many state and local governments are also specifying UNIX for the same reason.

Contractors with government contracts also are using UNIX. Many of these contracts require that the data be in UNIX format for the agency to review without going through a data conversion step.

A UNIX-based bankruptcy case management system developed by the Federal Judicial Center is being implemented. This system uses UNIX as the basic operating system and a relational data base. In the future, electronic document interchange between lawyers and clients or courts will be the norm, using UNIX as the basis for data compatibility.

Today, facsimile is the most common method of document communication in the legal community. The drawbacks are obvious.

The adoption of UNIX by software vendors will add to availability of applications and allow firms to communicate from system to system. WordPerfect and Lotus are two popular software programs that have announced UNIX versions.

Indicating UNIX's increasing popularity, Apple Computer announced their version of UNIX. To remain competitive, hardware and software vendors will continue announcing UNIX support. ICL North America, (formerly Computer Consoles, Inc.) has a UNIX version for the law office called Officepower. At the time it was introduced, Computer Consoles realized it could enhance its market share by adding other hardware vendors to run Officepower. ICL North America now has Officepower running on several different hardware platforms.

Wang may also be moving in the UNIX direction. In a recent announcement, the company said its developers are very close to completing a UNIX project.

For law firms the major benefits from these developments will be standardization and a choice of the best hardware and software. User interfaces across systems would be consistent, and training for end users could be standardized. Data and document exchange between systems could proceed without any hitches. In reality, UNIX is not yet so advanced that lawyers can take off-the-shelf software, install it on a variety of hardware systems and do the myriad applications with complete interchangeability.

Until all versions of UNIX come together, a single multiuser, multitasking system that runs on all hardware is still a dream. However, reality in the computer industry is directly related to revenue. When there is an opportunity to increase revenue, one can expect quantum leaps in technology. Lawyers should keep a close watch on UNIX because it offers answers lawyers and law firms have been seeking for decades.