Looking to the Past, Seeing the Future: Discovering Plan 9

Plan 9 from Bell Labs is this really cool, somewhat under-the-radar operating system that started in the late '80s. Imagine a group of tech wizards at Bell Labs, including Ken Thompson (same guy who co-created Unix), brainstorming and then bringing to life a system that's both familiar and wonderfully strange.

Plan 9 is a descendant of Unix, but it's also a radical departure from it. It's like a Unix that's been reimagined, with a unique design philosophy and a different way of doing things. It's a bit like a Unix that's been to a different planet and come back with a new perspective on life.

Plan 9 is all about making computers work together in harmony. It's like a conductor of an orchestra, but for computers. It helps different parts of a computer work together smoothly, just like how a conductor ensures each instrument in an orchestra plays in harmony. Imagine every part of the computer as a musician with their own sheet music (this is what we call a 'process'). Plan 9 gives each musician their own unique sheet music, but still makes sure they all create beautiful music together. It's all thanks to a special method called the 9P protocol - think of it as the music score that helps everyone play in tune. So, Plan 9 is pretty cool because it lets every part of the computer have its own role, yet they all work together to make the computer run smoothly.

Imagine Plan 9 bringing this harmony to smart homes, redefining integration and automation

With Plan 9 running your smart home, the difference would be in the deep integration and customization. Unlike today's Internet of Things (IoT) where devices mostly work independently, Plan 9 could make them truly collaborate. For example, your alarm clock wouldn't just wake you up; it could signal your coffee maker to start brewing and your thermostat to adjust the temperature to your preference, all based on your morning routine. It's about creating a more fluid, interconnected environment, where devices act together as one system, intuitively responding to your lifestyle and needs. Plan 9's unique approach to handling processes and resources could take smart home automation to a whole new level of personalization and efficiency.

Expanding this concept, think about Plan 9 combined with AI in smart cities, revolutionizing urban life and sustainability

Integrating Plan 9 with AI in smart cities could revolutionize urban living and environmental management. Imagine a city where AI and Plan 9 collaborate, creating a network where everything from traffic lights to public transport is synchronized for optimal flow, reducing congestion and pollution. AI could analyze data from various sources, making real-time adjustments for energy efficiency, while Plan 9's ability to interconnect systems would ensure seamless implementation of these decisions. This synergy could lead to smarter resource management, less waste, and a healthier environment, offering a glimpse into a future where technology and ecology harmoniously coexist.

So, why aren't we all using Plan 9?

Plan 9 was (actually still is) ahead of its time. It's a bit like a touchpad on a 90s era; a cool innovation at the time, but kind of clunky and not everyone knew what to do with it.

First off, in the late 1990s, Bell Labs, under Lucent Technologies, shifted focus away from commercial support for Plan 9. This change meant that Plan 9 lost the kind of commercial momentum that often drives technology into the mainstream. Without strong commercial backing, many potentially game-changing technologies remain hidden gems, known and appreciated by only a few.

The unique design philosophy of Plan 9, while innovative, also contributed to its limited adoption. It introduced a different way of thinking about operating systems, focusing on a distributed model and a unique per-process namespace. This approach, while advanced, resulted in a steeper learning curve compared to more familiar systems like Windows or macOS. For the average user, accustomed to the norms of mainstream operating systems, adapting to Plan 9’s environment could feel like learning a new language and at the time not everyone was ready to make that leap as they alread had a language they were able to do everything they needed to do.

Compatibility was another challenge. Plan 9 wasn't designed with a primary goal of being compatible with Unix source or binary, which meant that bringing over popular Unix applications required significant effort. This incompatibility with widely used software created a barrier for users and developers alike, making it less attractive as an everyday operating system.

The community around Plan 9, though dedicated and passionate, remains relatively small. A smaller user base means fewer people to drive community-led development, support, and spread the word. In the tech world, where community support can make or break a technology, this has been a significant factor.

Lastly, the official development of Plan 9 has seen its sunset at Bell Labs. While there are forks like 9front that continue the legacy, the absence of ongoing official development means fewer updates and improvements. This lack of momentum has made it harder for Plan 9 to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change.

In essence, Plan 9's journey highlights the challenges of pioneering in technology. Despite difficulties in mainstream adoption and a small yet passionate community, its potential remains immense, particularly with the future of AI and interconnected systems. Envisioning Plan 9's seeds in the realm of AI-driven smart cities or even space technology opens a window to endless possibilities. This hidden gem could still play a crucial role in shaping our future, and it's up to us to discover it.