Friday, October 14, 2011

The Shoulders of Giants

Two men died in the past ten days.

The first was a college dropout who stole the idea of a GUI from Xerox to create his own GUI-based OS which, till date, hasn't found popularity. He then got fired from his own company due to his obnoxious and headstrong decision making. A decade later he was called back to this company and revolutionized the technology industry with the iPod and the iPhone.

He was Steve Jobs. The ex-CEO of Apple Computers.

Within hours of his death, the Internet was alive with the news. From Apple fanboys who claimed they felt like losing a family member, to Google and Microsoft who set aside rivalry and paid tribute on their respective web pages, everyone had just one thing to say: the world had lost a visionary.

And as with all topics discussed on Facebook these days, be it Anna Hazare or ZNMD, either you speak with the majority or you are an insensitive and evil idiot. So everyone agreed that Steve Jobs was a great innovator who changed the life of mankind for the better. Everyone seemed to forget that the thing that the man was really good at was selling stuff. He built a business empire out of selling things that were, to a large extent, inferior to competing products and costlier at the same time. Yet, his products sold more and he managed to gather quite a fan following.

He was not a nice man. He never shared a penny of his earnings with the poor like Bill Gates did, he liked to have complete control over all the devices that Apple sold, and he hated criticism. I never liked his business policies. However, I admired his ability to see a market where none existed before, and the ability to tell people what they needed even before they knew they needed it. Even then, I did not appreciate the hype following his death. And that hype seems even more inappropriate and embarrassing now in view of how the second death was reported.

A friend's status update on Facebook on the 12th of October told me about the death of Dennis Ritchie. I searched for a news report on Google and did not find a single proper English news site reporting it. The few (less than five) search results that did show up were forum discussions. Wikipedia, however, seemed to confirm that Dennis Ritchie had died on... the 8th of October 2011[1].

He died four days earlier, and not a single media mention! Who was this guy anyway?

Dennis Ritchie built the C language. And he was the co-developer of the UNIX operating system. Those two things together make up nearly everything that we see around us in the computing world today, and definitely all of the Internet. As this article discusses, the two operating systems that Steve Jobs built his business empire over - the MacOS X and the iOS - were both derived from UNIX. Bill Gates built his business empire over Microsoft Windows which was written in C originally, and today all of the Internet runs on programs that were either written in C or written in languages derived from C. And while Gates and Jobs went on to become the richest men on the planet selling their respective operating systems, Ritchie's operating system formed the basis of the open source software movement.

Sir Isaac Newton once said, "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Dennis Ritchie was the giant on whose shoulders Steve Jobs stood. He was the giant on whose shoulders we are standing even now. Five days after his death. With hardly any media mention. The world doesn't even know who he was.

Steve Jobs got mentioned in millions of tweets. Fine! He earned them. But please, people, spare a little thought for the man who was behind it all.

Rest in peace Dr. Ritchie. You were the man who made me fall in love with programming.

[1] It now seems he died on the 12th of October 2011. But the fact that Wikipedia reported the wrong date initially only enforces my point.


  1. As you know, this is not really the post where I can comment. I am truly the insensitive and evil idiot here.

    I admit, I have never heard of Dennis Ritchie. But now I know, and I thank you for that. Public is like that Sugata. Most of us know about Steve Jobs because most of our friends know about him. ki ar kora jabe.

  2. this is the brother is a big fan of jobs.when i made him read your post he was stunned.i found no one who ever heard his name.i,myself heard his name first in facebook.we can just prey to god for dr.ritchie so that he can rest in peace.

  3. thats the case all around!! techies do the stuff but who sells takes the accolades!! he is the face to the end user and so it is natural....what is unfortunate is that we techies do not remember our brothers and are getting behind the profiteers! I know there would hv been a lot of groups which would hv silently paid their homage to Dr. Ritchie!!

  4. @Kuntala: That is the unfortunate part. We do things not because they are right, but because our friends do them.

    @neel: And yet, Steve Jobs would be nothing without Dennis Ritchie's contribution.

    @Abhishek: The salesmen will always get more publicity than the techies. It's a sad fact that we techies have to learn to live with.

  5. My dear Joy
    I am enriched after going through this blog,mailed by Gautam to me.I was totally ignorant about Dennis Ritchie.My contemporaries spending seven decades of their life in my locality in same/similar living conditions have hardly any knowledge about computer and it's language.
    In spite of my said limitations I share and appreciate your feeling from my experiences in other spheres which fully endorse your view.
    Jyotirmoy Mukherjee